The South African Human Rights Commission (the SAHRC or the Commission) commends all businesses that have upheld the lockdown regulations in an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19. The Commission is, however, concerned that certain businesses may be unaware of their human rights obligations under the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (Constitution).
Section 8(2) of the Constitution provides that ‘[a] provision of the Bill of Rights binds a natural or a juristic person if, and to the extent that, it is applicable, taking into account the nature of the right and the nature of any duty imposed by the right’. The Constitutional Court has confirmed that in certain circumstances private actors also have obligations in terms of the social and economic rights enshrined in the Constitution, which includes the right of access to health care services. At international law, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rightshas emphasized the obligation on all businesses to treat their workers – and especially vulnerable workers – with dignity.
Price hikes in respect of Personal Protective Equipment and other high-demand goods, as well as the failure to implement precautionary measures to protect workers from contracting Covid-19, therefore implicate various human rights, including the fundamental right to human dignity and the right of access to health care services, and the right to the highest attainable standard of health enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Whereas these obligations are reflected in the Regulations and Directions issued under the Disaster Management Act, 2002, the obligations imposed on businesses can also be sourced from the Constitution, which is the supreme law of South Africa.
The Commission therefore calls on all businesses to recall that in addition to having to adhere to relevant competition and other law, business and private actors continue to bear human rights obligations and responsibilities during this Covid-19 pandemic. The business and private sector has to adopt preventative measures to mitigate against the spread of the virus and human rights violations; and also exercise human rights due diligence to ensure that their conduct does not contribute to the spread of the virus and violate human rights. The business sector’s respect for, protection and promotion of human rights will be crucial to ensure South Africa’s resilience and recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Commission will be working closely with other statutory regulatory bodies, such as the Competition Commission, to ensure that the business sector upholds the respect for human rights in its operations during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Issued by the South African Human Rights Commission