To face COVID-19, the human rights community must first protect its own workers

JuanJo Martín/EFE

As much of the world struggles to deal with the health impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic, increased attention is now being paid to the economic fallout of the crisis, including the profound impact on unemployment rates and workers’ rights. The past few weeks have been unlike anything we have known or could have imagined. Across the world, the pandemic has not just changed our daily routines, it has altered entire systems of living and working that we had assumed were indispensable to modern society.

Indeed, the threat of unemployment is creating the main point of stress and discomfort for tens of millions of people, including those working in the human rights community. In conversations that CIVICUS has had with partners, more civil society workers were concerned about losing their jobs than they were about contracting the virus. These concerns are not unwarranted: economic activity across the globe is plummeting, and 80% of the global workforce have had their workplace fully or partially closed. The ILO (International Labour Organisation) is projecting that up to 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy will lose their livelihoods. And in the United States, politically motivated anti-lockdown protests have co-opted human rights language, arguing for the “right to return to work” despite international calls for physical distancing and pleas from overwhelmed local medical communities to stay home.

While human rights organizations fight against such global inequalities, their workers have not been immune from these impacts.

These concerns should not come as a surprise. COVID-19 has exacerbated multiple class, race, gender, and geographical inequalities that were already stark, with the informal, self-employed, and non-salaried work force taking the biggest economic hit. While many salaried workers have been able to stockpile food and work from home with fast internet connections, other families might only have enough cash on hand for a day or two of essential supplies. In Venezuela, for example, day labourers have admitted that they cannot stay home as ordered, because if they do not go out and work every day, their families won’t eat. In India, similarly impoverished workers have been beaten by police for violating stay-at-home orders. Other workers, especially contractors and those in the gig economy, have seen their livelihoods literally vanish overnight.

While human rights organizations fight against such global inequalities, their workers have not been immune from these impacts. In fact, due to the volatile nature of funding applications and project-based grants in the NGO world, civil society workers frequently find themselves in temporary contracts with little job security. There are also gendered implications here: 70% of civil society workers are women, and when cuts happen, the first staff members to go are usually racialized women at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy.

Almost overnight, we as a human rights community suddenly found ourselves in a situation where we are not prepared to protect workers. Contracts are in danger of being cut or not renewed, workers are being let go, and in some cases, funding has been suddenly reallocated without warning, forcing organizations to consider layoffs or to fold completely. As it turns out, the human rights community is very good at holding others accountable, and not nearly as good as holding itself accountable—especially when it comes to workers’ rights.

How did we get here? One of the key problems is inflexible funding—an issue that is far from new in this sector. Project-based funding does not allow for flexible resource reallocation to extend contracts or to continue paying workers who cannot show up, as has happened in this crisis. Another problem is the sector’s reliance on contractors rather than full-time employees who are entitled to benefits, such as sick leave. Civil society also relies heavily on female labour, and women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to the gender norms of caregiving responsibilities—but many do not have access to social protections that account for these gendered impacts.

In response to this unprecedented crisis, CIVICUS launched a social security protocol for civil society. This six-point protocol, based on the ILO’s policy framework to fight COVID-19, provides a shared template for civil society groups to deliberate context-specific measures and adopt feasible actions in a time-bound and transparent manner.

The proposed measures include:

  1. Systems to ensure physical distancing and other precautions;
  2. Support for COVID-19 testing and related treatment;
  3. Protection of jobs and pay across the COVID-19 lockdown and escalation period;
  4. Flexibility and support for home and care related responsibilities;
  5. Extending our community of care to our collaborators and constituencies;
  6. Acting in solidarity with workers and other vulnerable communities.

When we launched this protocol, what became immediately apparent was how rapidly local, grassroots organizations in the global South supported these measures and immediately committed to supporting their staff by agreeing to adopt context-specific social protection measures. Perhaps even more striking about the list of organizations signing onto this protocol is the glaring omission of larger institutions based in the global North.

But there is a reason that smaller, local organizations have been able to pivot quickly in this crisis: there is less red tape, fewer bureaucratic demands, and they haven’t been paralyzed by a work force that can no longer travel internationally. Perhaps this crisis will show us that we don’t always need massive organizations with their equally large budgets to get real results. Perhaps civil society will finally learn that the health of our workers—including their mental health—is critical to our very survival as a sector.

This crisis should be a wakeup call to all of us in civil society to strengthen social protection measures in our own sector. This is the moment to change how we work and to protect our own, so that they can go out and protect others.