Cracks in the “Canada Brand”: Corporate accountability during COVID-19

Cracks in the “Canada Brand”: profit before people creates high-risk conditions for communities made vulnerable by the pandemic 

Workers’ concerns ignored at Canadian meat packing plants and hundreds made sick. Amazon employees fired for speaking out about conditions on warehouse floors. Energy workers expected to continue working despite outbreaks at mine sites and an inability to physically distance. Construction workers unable to wash their hands on the job because there is no running water. Mining considered an essential service that employs workers from across the country while small communities struggle to keep away visitors. These are some of the dire stories being shared across Canada as the pandemic reveals the impact of business decisions on workers and communities. While the situation varies from community to community, and some companies have taken steps to suspend operations in order to protect workers and communities, there is growing concern that not all companies are truly respecting human rights through this crisis.

The need for economic continuity and respect for human rights are not trade-offs, even in times of crisis

Amnesty International and 30 other international organisations are calling on governments, corporations and investors to ensure a human rights consistent response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The groups stress that decisions to operate ‘business as usual’ during the pandemic without fully safe-guarding human rights and ensuring accountability for corporate human rights abuses puts people’s health and well-being at further risk. The need for economic continuity and respect for human rights are not trade-offs, even in times of crisis. Amnesty International joins our international partners in calling on business to:

  • Protect workers and provide safe working conditions
  • Minimize harm to workers when reducing activities in response to the pandemic
  • Minimize harms to suppliers and others caused by necessary COVID-19 measures
  • Consider and address new and emerging human rights risks that may arise from COVID-19 throughout their operations and consider how they make communities vulnerable
  • Refrain from activities that impede measures to tackle the pandemic and the enjoyment of universal human rights.

All governments have a duty to protect against business-related human rights and environmental abuses and this obligation doesn’t vanish in times of crisis. Governments must make sure that their responses to the pandemic are aligned with their obligations under international law to respect, protect and uphold human rights.

Yet Amnesty International has received alarming reports of attacks on human rights defenders in lock-down at home, environmental safeguards being relaxed, and companies pressing ahead with expansion or exploration plans despite the impossibility of complying with public consultation requirements. In Colombia, human rights defenders report a serious virus outbreak at a construction camp for a hydro-dam funded by Export Development Canada.

In many countries around the world, tensions between Canadian mining operators, workers and community members already run high, and the COVID-19 pandemic is further exposing the cracks in Canada’s already tarnished “Canada Brand” of global extractives investment.

Where is Canada’s voice in this?

Ongoing oil, gas, mining and construction operations – deemed essential services in many countries – expose workers who live and carry out their duties in cramped quarters to the virus.  The lack of health and safety equipment, like protective masks or hand-washing facilities, and the inability to carry out safe physical distancing while working puts these workers at risk, especially those with underlying health conditions. Further, lack of adequate health services at remote mine sites mean that workers who fall ill must rely on clinics or regional hospitals which may be poorly equipped to deal with very sick patients. In countries with severe lock-down restrictions, access to necessities is limited and people may not be able to buy the food and medicines they need for family members who fall ill.  

Communities at home and abroad where Canadian companies operate have had to deal with COVID-19 in different ways: in some communities, residents have blockaded mine sites to protest continuing operations and the ongoing use of fly-in, fly-out workers; in other communities, Indigenous leaders have called on companies to stop exacerbating community tensions caused by handing out donations of food; and yet in other regions, companies have kept local workers off the job-site, ostensibly to protect the health of local families, while allowing fly-in, fly-out workers to continue to travel into the area for their shifts. News of outbreaks associated with particular oil, gas and mining operations have residents living near those sites and in the workers’ home communities on edge.

Companies are using the crisis to press for lower environmental and other regulatory standards

Oil, gas and mining companies claim that economic recovery will depend on aggressively restarting their operations and in some cases, allowing them to expand existing operations, increase capacity, and bypass compliance measures. Some are actively lobbying governments to suspend or limit the application of environmental regulations and this could result in violations of economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. 

While legislation in countries where Canadian mining, oil and gas companies operate is often minimal at best or poorly enforced, some companies are seeking to further weaken those obligations in order to create more favourable conditions for their expansion ambitions. It is questionable whether governments will be able to enforce public consultations or consent-seeking requirements during lock-downs, nor physical distancing measures, and yet companies continue to seek exploration and expansion permits. Yet even where national human rights standards have been lifted, the international responsibilities of companies to respect human rights remains. It exists independently of States’ willingness to fulfill their own human rights obligations.

Human Rights defenders made more vulnerable during pandemic lockdowns

Amnesty is concerned that the pandemic and measures to address it, such as curfews and restrictions on movement, pose a particular risk to human rights defenders, and in particular those who raise concerns about forestry, energy, mining or agricultural projects. These land, territory and environmental defenders face tremendous risks for the work they do and must often move locations frequently in order to protect their lives. However, under pandemic measures, they may not be able to travel as freely, exposing them to serious threats to their lives or other attacks. Since countries began locking down citizens in order to prevent the spread of the virus, defenders report threats, attacks and even killings are still occurring.

Yet human rights defenders are key in finding and implementing responses to the pandemic and ensuring that measures are put in place to protect them. They also play a crucial role in identifying risks linked to businesses’ activities and products, which puts them into conflict with powerful corporate actors. Amnesty calls on businesses to refrain from interfering with the work of human rights defenders and from taking part in or condoning any activities that could put human rights defenders at further risk. Governments must take proactive steps to ensure human rights defenders are protected from threats and attacks at all times. During the pandemic, governments must acknowledge that sheltering in place makes defenders more vulnerable to harm and dedicate resources to addressing the increased risks they face both domestically and abroad.

Going back to business as usual is not an option

Governments and corporations must acknowledge that societies cannot thrive when people are exploited. As long as profit is valued over individual and collective rights and healthy ecosystems, human rights are at risk. Now is the time to rebuild our social structures to protect human rights and dignity, the self-determination of Indigenous peoples, hold companies accountable for human rights and environmental harms, and ensure that governments are free from corporate influence. COVID-19 cannot be used to allow companies to take advantage of the crisis to maximize profit at the expense of human rights.

Read the following related Amnesty statements