In Paris this week on an official visit, Azerbaijan’s autocratic President Ilham Aliyev has already scored one photo op. Anyone reading yesterday’s Azeri media could see dozens of photos of Aliyev posing with leaders of top French companies, including Airbus, Suez, and Credit Agricole.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (L) shakes hands with his French counterpart Francois Hollande as they visit a local French school under construction in Baku, May 11, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

Today, President Hollande will receive President Aliyev and host an official dinner at Palais de l’Elysee. Again, Parisian photo ops abound. But amid the flashing cameras, one has to wonder where Azerbaijan’s repression of critics and the jailing of opponents fits in the new relationship between Paris and Baku?

In the past few years, Azerbaijani authorities have aggressively gone after the country’s once vibrant civil society, jailing dozens of activists, journalists, and political opponents. It also adopted draconian legislation making it virtually impossible for independent non-governmental organizations to operate.

One year ago, as Azerbaijan’s economy started to suffer from falling oil prices, several of those detained on political grounds were released. That was an important first step, but hopes for progress were short-lived.

Many of those released face travel bans or obstacles to their activities. Dozens are still locked up on political grounds, including opposition activist Ilgar Mammadov, despite repeated calls by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe for his immediate release. And more activists have been thrown in jail. Recently, one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, Mehman Huseynov, was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly defaming the police, in response to his brave public denouncement of the police abuses he suffered.

When visiting Paris, Brussels, or other European capitals, President Aliyev hopes to get more business opportunities and investment in Azerbaijan. But he prefers to ignore that the people of Azerbaijan want human rights protections, transparency, and good governance. Those standing up for these values are routinely exposed to attacks and harassment.

Yet what more clear message that Azerbaijan’s crackdown cannot be ignored by potential investors than last week’s decision by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international coalition promoting better governance of resource-rich countries, to suspend Azerbaijan – precisely because of its actions against civil society.

President Hollande should reject a narrative that only finance and economy matter in Azerbaijan. Human rights should be as central to France’s foreign policy as other topics.

Hollande should publicly call for the release of Ilgar Mammadov and all those detained in retaliation for their activism and criticism. A failure to explicitly support human rights principles would be the worst message to those unjustly waiting behind bars.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Arvind Ganesan is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Business and Human Rights Division. He leads the organization’s work to expose human rights abuses linked to business and other economic activity, hold institutions accountable, and develop standards to prevent future abuses. This work has included research and advocacy on awide range of issues includingthe extractive industries; public and private security providers; international financial institutions; freedom of expression and information through the internet; labor rights; supply chain monitoring and due diligence regimes; corruption; sanctions; and predatory practices against the poor. Ganesan’s work has covered countries such as Angola, Azerbaijan, Burma, China, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, India, Indonesia, the United States, and Nigeria. His recent research has focused on predatory lending practices and governance issues on Native American reservations in the United States. He has written numerous reports, op-eds, and other articles and is widely cited by the media.

Ganesan has also worked to develop industry standards to ensure companies and other institutions respect human rights. He is a founder of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights for the oil, gas, and mining industries and is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI) for the internet and telecommunications industries, where he also serves on the board. Ganesan has helped to develop standards for international financial institutions such as the World Bank, and regularly engages governments in an effort to develop mandatory rules or strengthen existing standards such as the Kimberley Process. He serves on the board of EGJustice, a nongovernmental organization that promotes good governance in Equatorial Guinea, and is a member of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR)’s steering committee.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Ganesan worked as a medical researcher. He attended the University of Oklahoma.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

© 2017 Marco Tibasima for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The World Bank has approved a US$500 million education loan to Tanzania without requiring the government to end its policy of expelling pregnant schoolgirls, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 31, 2020, the World Bank Board of Executive Directors voted to provide the loan to fund Tanzania’s secondary education program.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has vigorously supported a ban on pregnant students and vowed to uphold it throughout his term. Tanzanian schools routinely force girls to undergo intrusive pregnancy tests and permanently expel those who are pregnant. The authorities have arrested some schoolgirls for becoming pregnant. An estimated 5,500 pregnant students stop going to school every year, although previous estimates indicate that close to 8,000 students have been forced to drop out of school each year.

“The World Bank should be working with governments to move education systems toward full inclusion and accommodation of all girls in public schools, including those who are pregnant or parents,” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the World Bank failed to use its leverage and caved to Tanzania’s discriminatory ban and practices, undermining its own commitment to nondiscrimination.”

The World Bank loan includes funds to build a system of “alternative education pathways,” a fee-based parallel system of nonformal education centers for children who drop out of formal education, and a cornerstone of Tanzania’s Secondary Education Quality Improvement Program (SEQUIP). This program was developed as a response to the World Bank’s decision to withhold a $300 million loan for secondary education in Tanzania in part because of the government’s mistreatment of pregnant girls.

Under SEQUIP, studying in these alternative centers is the only option for girls expelled from schools for being pregnant. But these alternative education pathways cannot be portrayed as providing the equivalence of education in formal public lower secondary schools. These centers will not be tuition-free, and will provide a condensed version of the curriculum.

In its endorsement of the loan, the World Bank considered that girls who are pregnant or have a baby merely “drop-out” of school. In framing the issue this way, the World Bank disregarded independent evidence that shows that girls are expelled, humiliated by school officials and teachers when forced to take a pregnancy test or discovered to be pregnant, and rejected by their own peers as a result.

The World Bank did not address the concerns about the ban in approving the loan, Human Rights Watch said. The Tanzanian government has not adopted a policy or decree that clarifies girls’ right to stay in school during and after pregnancy or provided assurances that it will reintroduce the “re-entry” policy struck down by Parliament in 2017.

All governments should take immediate measures to ensure that secondary education is available and accessible to all free of charge and make education compulsory through the end of lower secondary school, Human Rights Watch said.

The World Bank should not disburse the initial tranches of the loan until the government respects its obligations to guarantee equal access to free and compulsory primary education and equal access to lower secondary education for girls. The government should immediately end the discriminatory ban and adopt a ministerial decree that instructs all schools to immediately cease pregnancy testing and stop expelling pregnant girls.

Tanzania is one of two African countries that explicitly ban pregnant girls or adolescent mothers from government schools. In recent years, many African governments have made strong commitments to ensure that pregnant girls and mothers can attend school. Human Rights Watch research has found that laws, policies, and guidelines that protect pregnant girls’ and adolescent mothers’ right to education are key to ensuring girls are not discriminated against at school.

All African governments should adopt human rights-compliant “continuation” policies that are fully put into effect nationwide, spelling out girls’ rights so that school and ministry staff have clear guidance on how to support and provide special accommodations for young mothers at school, Human Rights Watch said.

The World Bank’s backtracking on pregnant girls’ right to education also raises concerns about the bank’s broader commitment to implementing its Environmental and Social Framework, which guarantees that bank loans will not be used to further discrimination. Other groups that are subject to state-sponsored discrimination in Tanzania, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, may be at greater risk if the government sees indications that the bank is not upholding its own nondiscrimination principles.

“Contrary to the World Bank’s portrayal of the Tanzanian loan, ‘alternative pathways’ will never match what children get in formal, compulsory education,” Martinez said. “Unlike most out-of-school children who have a choice of returning to school, pregnant girls are arbitrarily denied the right to return to school and forced into a parallel system.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A woman sews face masks at a furniture factory in Eldorado Park, Johannesburg, Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed

There are an estimated 450 million people working in global supply chains, many of whom face reduced income or job loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Companies around the world are closing shops, cancelling orders, and stopping production. The garment industry is particularly hard-hit, but other businesses like mining, jewelry, or automobile sectors are suffering too. Workers in these supply chains are among the most vulnerable and most affected by the crisis.

If it was not clear before COVID-19, it is now: Businesses are connected through a world wide web of global supply chains, and the behavior of large companies impacts those working at the bottom of these supply chains.

So what does responsible company behavior look like in this pandemic?

Companies that have closed temporarily have found ways to pay their workers in supply chains. For example, South African suppliers and textile workers unions have agreed to a national collective bargaining agreement paying workers six weeks in full during the lockdown. By contrast, many suppliers in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Bangladesh have suspended work without paying workers even for work already completed. Global brands who source from suppliers in these countries should pay for the orders that have already been completed or were in progress. A few retailers, including H&M, have done this for their global suppliers but many others have left their suppliers hanging.

Where factories or other workplaces are still operating, workers’ health needs to be protected, including through protective gear, social distancing, and flexible work arrangements. Workers across the supply chain also need to be able to take paid leave when they’re sick or to care for ill relatives.

Many companies are struggling immensely in this crisis. But they should not forget about the workers in their supply chains. Companies should do what they can to ensure workers are safe and continue to have an income to be able to feed their families. More generally, they should use this moment to review their supply chains and ensure they have robust protections for workers, in line with international standards, and ensure that the purchase prices they pay factor in workers’ social protection.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Police in France using “Drone 06” to enforce quarantine measures in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, March 27, 2020

© 2020 Sipa via AP Images

(Washington, DC) – Governments’ use of digital surveillance technologies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic should respect human rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Access Now, Privacy International, and 103 other organizations said in a joint statement today. The groups urged governments to show leadership in tackling the pandemic by respecting human rights when using digital technologies to track and monitor people.

“COVID-19 is an unprecedented health crisis, but governments must not use the virus as cover to introduce invasive or pervasive digital surveillance,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Any surveillance measures must have a legal basis, be narrowly tailored to meet a legitimate public health goal, and contain safeguards against abuse.”

Governments are increasingly turning to digital surveillance to monitor and contain the pandemic. There are currently reports that 24 countries are undertaking telecommunications location tracking and 14 countries are using applications for contact tracing or quarantine enforcement.

Human Rights Watch has found that the governments in China and Russia are expanding their surveillance capabilities and restricting rights in ways that are not justified on public health grounds to counter the spread of COVID-19. Public health authorities in the United States are also working closely with the private sector to aggregate and analyze vast pools of data about people’s movements, in a bid to gain insights into how the virus is spreading and assess the effectiveness of public health interventions. However, those large datasets often do not fairly represent communities, especially people living in poverty and other minorities.

 “Trying to figure out how COVID-19 spreads by using incomplete and discriminatory datasets threatens our human rights,” said Amos Toh, senior researcher on artificial intelligence at Human Rights Watch. “This could lead to more draconian enforcement of public health measures that unfairly penalize people living in poverty and other minority communities.” 

Some of the surveillance measures being proposed today could fundamentally reshape the relationship between governments and their people, eroding trust in public authorities. This could not only cause long-term damage to human rights, but even during the emergency could undermine efforts to respond to the public health crisis.  

The statement outlines eight conditions governments should meet to allow for increased digital surveillance, including that their measures:

  • Are lawful, necessary and proportionate, transparent, and justified by legitimate public health objectives;
  • Are time-bound and only continue for as long as necessary to address the pandemic;
  • Are limited in scope and purpose, used only for the purposes of responding to the pandemic;
  • Ensure sufficient security of any personal data that is collected;
  • Mitigate any risk of enabling discrimination or other rights abuses against marginalized populations;
  • Are transparent about any data-sharing agreements with other public or private sector entities;
  • Incorporate protections and safeguards against abusive surveillance, and give people access to effective remedies; and
  • Provide for free, active, and meaningful participation of relevant stakeholders in data collection efforts.

“Digital technology could help in combating this pandemic and keeping people safe, but only if governments follow human rights rules when using these tools,” Brown said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global public health emergency that requires a coordinated and large-scale response by governments worldwide. However, States’ efforts to contain the virus must not be used as a cover to usher in a new era of greatly expanded systems of invasive digital surveillance.

We, the undersigned organizations, urge governments to show leadership in tackling the pandemic in a way that ensures that the use of digital technologies to track and monitor individuals and populations is carried out strictly in line with human rights.

Technology can and should play an important role during this effort to save lives, such as to spread public health messages and increase access to health care. However, an increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities – undermining the effectiveness of any public health response. Such measures also pose a risk of discrimination and may disproportionately harm already marginalized communities.

These are extraordinary times, but human rights law still applies. Indeed, the human rights framework is designed to ensure that different rights can be carefully balanced to protect individuals and wider societies. States cannot simply disregard rights such as privacy and freedom of expression in the name of tackling a public health crisis. On the contrary, protecting human rights also promotes public health. Now more than ever, governments must rigorously ensure that any restrictions to these rights is in line with long-established human rights safeguards.

This crisis offers an opportunity to demonstrate our shared humanity. We can make extraordinary efforts to fight this pandemic that are consistent with human rights standards and the rule of law. The decisions that governments make now to confront the pandemic will shape what the world looks like in the future.

We call on all governments not to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with increased digital surveillance unless the following conditions are met:

  1. Surveillance measures adopted to address the pandemic must be lawful, necessary and proportionate. They must be provided for by law and must be justified by legitimate public health objectives, as determined by the appropriate public health authorities, and be proportionate to those needs. Governments must be transparent about the measures they are taking so that they can be scrutinized and if appropriate later modified, retracted, or overturned. We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse for indiscriminate mass surveillance.
  2. If governments expand monitoring and surveillance powers then such powers must be time-bound, and only continue for as long as necessary to address the current pandemic. We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse for indefinite surveillance
  3. States must ensure that increased collection, retention, and aggregation of personal data, including health data, is only used for the purposes of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Data collected, Fed, and aggregated to respond to the pandemic must be limited in scope, time-bound in relation to the pandemic and must not be used for commercial or any other purposes. We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse to gut individual’s right to privacy.
  4. Governments must take every effort to protect people’s data, including ensuring sufficient security of any personal data collected and of any devices, applications, networks, or services involved in collection, transmission, processing, and storage. Any claims that data is anonymous must be based on evidence and supported with sufficient information regarding how it has been anonymized. We cannot allow attempts to respond to this pandemic to be used as justification for compromising people’s digital safety.
  5. Any use of digital surveillance technologies in responding to COVID-19, including big data and artificial intelligence systems, must address the risk that these tools will facilitate discrimination and other rights abuses against racial minorities, people living in poverty, and other marginalized populations, whose needs and lived realities may be obscured or misrepresented in large datasets. We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to further increase the gap in the enjoyment of human rights between different groups in society. 
  6. If governments enter into data sharing agreements with other public or private sector entities, they must be based on law, and the existence of these agreements and information necessary to assess their impact on privacy and human rights must be publicly disclosed – in writing, with sunset clauses, public oversight and other safeguards by default. Businesses involved in efforts by governments to tackle COVID-19 must undertake due diligence to ensure they respect human rights, and ensure any intervention is firewalled from other business and commercial interests. We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse for keeping people in the dark about what information their governments are gathering and sharing with third parties.
  7. Any response must incorporate accountability protections and safeguards against abuse. Increased surveillance efforts related to COVID-19 should not fall under the domain of security or intelligence agencies and must be subject to effective oversight by appropriate independent bodies. Further, individuals must be given the opportunity to know about and challenge any COVID-19 related measures to collect, aggregate, and retain, and use data. Individuals who have been subjected to surveillance must have access to effective remedies.
  8. COVID-19 related responses that include data collection efforts should include means for free, active, and meaningful participation of relevant stakeholders, in particular experts in the public health sector and the most marginalized population groups.

 

Signatories:
 
7amleh – Arab Center for Social Media Advancement
Access Now
African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms Coalition
AI Now
Algorithm Watch
Alternatif Bilisim
Amnesty International
ApTI
ARTICLE 19
Asociación para una Ciudadanía Participativa, ACI Participa
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
ASUTIC, Senegal
Athan - Freedom of Expression Activist Organization
Barracón Digital
Big Brother Watch
Bits of Freedom
Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD)
Center for Digital Democracy
Center for Economic Justice
Centro De Estudios Constitucionales y de Derechos Humanos de Rosario
Chaos Computer Club - CCC
Citizen D / Državljan D
Civil Liberties Union for Europe
CódigoSur
Coding Rights
Coletivo Brasil de Comunicação Social
Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
Comité por la Libre Expresión (C-Libre)
Committee to Protect Journalists
Consumer Action
Consumer Federation of America
Cooperativa Tierra Común
Creative Commons Uruguay
D3 - Defesa dos Direitos Digitais
Data Privacy Brasil
Democratic Transition and Human Rights Support Center "DAAM"
Derechos Digitales
Digital Rights Lawyers Initiative (DRLI)
Digital Security Lab Ukraine
Digitalcourage
EPIC
epicenter.works
European Digital Rights - EDRi
Fitug
Foundation for Information Policy Research
Foundation for Media Alternatives
Fundación Acceso (Centroamérica)
Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo, Ecuador
Fundación Datos Protegidos
Fundación Internet Bolivia
Fundación Taigüey, República Dominicana
Fundación Vía Libre
Hermes Center
Hiperderecho
Homo Digitalis
Human Rights Watch
Hungarian Civil Liberties Union
ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies
Index on Censorship
Initiative für Netzfreiheit
Innovation for Change - Middle East and North Africa
International Commission of Jurists
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
Intervozes - Coletivo Brasil de Comunicação Social
Ipandetec
IPPF
Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)
IT-Political Association of Denmark
Iuridicum Remedium z.s. (IURE)
Karisma
La Quadrature du Net
Liberia Information Technology Student Union
Liberty
Luchadoras
Majal.org
Masaar "Community for Technology and Law"
Media Rights Agenda (Nigeria)
MENA Rights Group
Metamorphosis Foundation
New America's Open Technology Institute
Observacom
Open Data Institute
Open Rights Group
OpenMedia
OutRight Action International
Pangea
Panoptykon Foundation
Paradigm Initiative (PIN)
PEN International
Privacy International
Public Citizen
Public Knowledge
R3D: Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales
RedesAyuda
SHARE Foundation
Skyline International for Human Rights
Sursiendo
Swedish Consumers’ Association
Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
Tech Inquiry
TechHerNG
TEDIC
The Bachchao Project
Unwanted Witness, Uganda
WITNESS
World Wide Web Foundation
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Garment factory workers wear face masks as they end their work shift, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 20, 2020.

(c) 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith
(London) – Apparel brands’ business practices in response to COVID-19 are exacerbating the economic plight of millions of garment workers in Asia, Human Rights Watch said today. Scores of clothing brands and retailers have canceled orders without assuming financial responsibility even when workers had finished making their products.

These brand actions that increase worker job losses through dismissals and temporary layoffs are contrary to brands’ human rights responsibilities outlined in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector. Many supplier factories in Asia are strapped for cash and unable to pay workers’ wages and other compensation because of the brands’ actions.

“These are extraordinarily challenging times, yet clothing brands facing tough business decisions to ride out the COVID-19 crisis should not forsake the factory workers who make their branded products,” said Aruna Kashyap, senior counsel in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. “Brands should take steps to minimize the devastating economic consequences for garment workers in their global supply chains and for their families who depend on this income to survive.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 manufacturers and industry experts, including brand representatives, about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on factories in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, and other Asian countries; reviewed email communications from brand representatives to their global suppliers; and interviewed worker rights groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused clothing brands’ and retailers’ sales to plummet. Many have closed their retail stores to check the spread of the virus. While navigating this crisis, some brands and retailers have taken advantage of unfair purchasing practices, which Human Rights Watch highlighted in its April 2019 report, “Paying for a Bus Ticket and Expecting to Fly,” that fuel labor abuses.

In March 2020, manufacturers from various countries told Human Rights Watch that very few brands assume any of the business risks when placing orders. The former manager of a garment factory in Cambodia said that in their experience, brands typically imposed all payment terms and conditions with no room to negotiate. Big brands and retailers did not make advance payments and had longer payment windows after goods were shipped.

In contrast, the small and medium-sized brands the factory had done business with negotiated better terms, paying up to 30 percent of the purchase order price at the time of raw materials purchase and cleared remaining payments within a week or 10 days of delivery or order completion.

Advance payment and shorter payment windows allow suppliers to maintain better cash flow, affecting their ability to pay wages on time. But the vast majority of brands and retailers do not offer such payment terms – the Better Buying Purchasing Practices Index Report from late 2018 showed that 73 percent of the suppliers who took the survey said that brands and retailers they did business with did not offer advance payments or have favorable payment terms.

During the COVID-19 crisis, many global brands and retailers have made the following demands, asking suppliers to be “flexible” and “understanding”:

  • Canceling orders for goods that workers had already made.
  • Canceling orders for goods that workers were in the process of making.
  • Demanding discounts on products already shipped, dating back to January.
  • Not assuming any financial responsibility or specifying when payments would occur, even in cases where orders were already made or were in process.

A March 27 study by the Center for Global Workers’ Rights and Worker Rights Consortium on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in Bangladesh reported that of the 316 Bangladeshi suppliers who took the survey, suppliers said that more than 95 percent of brands and retailers refused to contribute to the cost of partial wages for workers who were temporarily suspended or severance payments for those dismissed.

According to the UN Guiding Principles, along with the OECD Due Diligence Guidance on Garments, brands should undertake human rights due diligence to identify and mitigate risks that may cause or contribute to human rights problems in their supply chains. This includes “assessing” actual and potential human rights impacts, “integrating and acting upon the findings,” “tracking responses,” “communicating how impacts are addressed,” and engaging externally to “know and show” that they are taking effective measures.

Thus far, the H&M Group, Inditex (Zara and other brands), and Target USA have taken steps in the right direction. These and likely other companies have committed to take delivery of goods already produced or in production and pay for them as previously agreed upon.

More brands should take similar steps to ensure fair treatment of workers, including payment of wages and other compensation, and minimize job loss, Human Rights Watch said. Nearly 200 institutional investors have urged companies to maintain supplier relationships as much as possible, and make timely and prompt payments to suppliers.

Some global brands are repurposing their supply chains to produce personal protective equipment, including gloves and masks, for medical purposes. Brands and governments should continue to support workers producing essential medical supplies by ensuring that they too receive adequate personal protective equipment and follow occupational health and safety guidance issued by the World Health Organization.

Producing personal protective equipment, however, will not generate sufficient alternative employment for all workers. In Bangladesh, an estimated one million workers have already been laid off or temporarily suspended – a majority of whom did not receive wages and other payments due to them under local laws. In Myanmar, 20,000 workers have already lost their jobs and one industry expert estimated that as many as 70,000 garment workers could lose jobs within a week. In Cambodia, one estimate projected that 200,000 garment workers could lose their jobs.

These governments do not have the financial capacity to provide economic relief packages like those announced by Western governments. Donors and international financial institutions should focus on developing and carrying out plans to immediately alleviate workers’ economic and social distress, and set in motion longer-term measures to provide social protection for workers, Human Rights Watch said.

“Global clothing brands, donors, and international financial institutions should combine forces and urgently undertake efforts with labor rights groups to help low-income workers during the COVID-19 crisis,” Kashyap said. “But longer-term measures are also needed – this pandemic has underscored that social protection schemes for workers and effective mandatory regulations to curb unfair commercial practices of brands in their supply chains are long overdue.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A man on his mobile phone in Srinagar, Kashmir, January 30, 2020. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Dar Yasin

UPDATE: Ethiopia announced that it would restore phone and internet service to western Oromia after a three-month shutdown.

(New York) – Intentionally shutting down or restricting access to the internet violates multiple rights and can be deadly during a health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments that are currently imposing an internet shutdown, such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, and Myanmar, should lift them immediately to save lives.

During a health crisis, access to timely and accurate information is crucial. People use the internet for updates on health measures, movement restrictions, and relevant news to protect themselves and others.

“Internet shutdowns block people from getting essential information and services,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate. “During this global health crisis, shutdowns directly harm people’s health and lives, and undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control.”

For people around the world staying at home, either willingly or because of government restrictions, the internet is critical to communicate with doctors, family, and friends. For many children and others seeking an education, it is needed to continue learning as schools shutter around the world.

Internet shutdowns can have a greater impact on women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, people with disabilities, and older people who may rely on the internet for online support services. These groups are most likely to rely on the internet to protect their physical safety, access sexual and reproductive health information and care, and participate in social, professional, and economic life, particularly when women are disproportionately taking on more child care and education responsibilities, and when isolation can lead to or exacerbate psychological distress.

The economic cost of internet disruptions is significant. As restrictions on movement expand, many individuals and businesses are relying on the internet more than usual for their work.

Internet shutdowns have become increasingly common in recent years, usually during tense periods, such as elections, anti-government protests, or armed conflicts. Thirty-three countries enforced 213 internet shutdowns in 2019, according to Access Now. Government justifications ranged from a need to combat fake news to public safety and national security.

India had the most internet shutdowns with at least 385 ordered since 2012. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian government imposed a complete communications blackout in August 2019, which stopped families from communicating and disrupted the local economy. Phone services were gradually restored, but it was only after the Supreme Court found the internet shutdown illegal in January 2020 that service was partially restored, and only at 2G speed.

Since COVID-19 spread to India, people have reported not being able to access websites that provide information about the pandemic due to highly restricted speeds that make accessing anything beyond text messages nearly impossible. The New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation has called on the government to “make all tools including high speed internet available to doctors and patients to save lives.”

In Ethiopia, millions of people in western Oromia may be missing key information about COVID-19 because of a months-long government-imposed shutdown of internet and phone services. The shutdown has prevented families from communicating, disrupted lifesaving services, and contributed to an information blackout during government counterinsurgency operations in the area.

In Myanmar, the government is blocking the internet for more than one million people in Rakhine and Chin States. It first restricted access in eight townships in Rakhine State and one in Chin State last June, with an impact on civilians in conflict areas, the delivery of humanitarian aid, and the work of human rights monitors. The government lifted restrictions in five townships in Rakhine and Chin States in September but reinstated them on February 3, 2020.

In Bangladesh, an internet blackout and phone restrictions at Rohingya refugee camps are hindering humanitarian groups from addressing the COVID-19 threat. The shutdown jeopardizes the health and lives of nearly 900,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazar and the Bangladeshi host community.

Nearly four years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council first condemned measures to prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online and called on countries to refrain from such measures. Last week, leading international free speech experts said that internet shutdowns “cannot be justified” during the COVID-19 outbreak.

On March 27, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged all governments to end any and all internet and telecommunication shutdowns. “Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, fact-based and relevant information on the disease and its spread and response must reach all people, without exception,” a statement said.

Under international law, governments have an obligation to ensure that any restrictions to information online are provided by law, are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific threat, and are in the public interest.

Officials should never use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to stop the flow of information or to harm people’s ability to express political views, and doing so during a health crisis can cost lives, Human Rights Watch said.

Governments order internet shutdowns but internet service providers are responsible for carrying them out. Internet service providers should do everything in their power to push back against unjustified internet shutdowns, including by demanding a legal basis for any shutdown order and interpreting requests to cause the least intrusive restrictions. They should prioritize their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and avoid complicity in human rights abuses, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Providers should give customers advance notice of shutdowns and disclose the government’s role and legal basis for restricting networks and services.

Human rights organizations can join and participate in the #KeepItOn campaign coordinated by Access Now to fight internet shutdowns with documentation, advocacy, policy maker engagement, technical support, and legal interventions.

“During a global pandemic, when people around the world are isolated and access to information can mean life or death, it’s time to impose a moratorium on internet shutdowns,” Brown said. “Governments should ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible service for all.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A woman waits outside the emergency check-in entrance at the Providence Medical Center in Portland, Ore., on March 24, 2020. 

© 2020 Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa via AP Images

The stimulus package the United States Congress approved last week provides billions of dollars for hospitals but does not ensure COVID-19 treatment is affordable and accessible. This gap could prove devastating for millions of Americans if medical costs keep people from seeking needed treatment, increasing the risk of serious illness, death, and further spread of the disease.

An uninsured woman in Boston recently reported that her COVID-19 testing and treatment cost nearly $35,000. These astronomical costs are out of reach for the uninsured. The media has reported stories of people dying from COVID-19 because they delayed care out of fear of the medical bills. An uninsured woman in Pennsylvania died after refusing to go to the hospital because she feared “she might not be able to pay the bills,” her son told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating the death of a 17-year-old in California who was allegedly denied care for suspected COVID-19 symptoms because he was uninsured.

There are at least 28 million Americans who are uninsured, and that number is growing. Unemployment numbers are at a record high in the US, adding to healthcare cost anxieties. Employer-based health insurance covers over half of Americans, but with 3.3 million people claiming unemployment this month, many could be facing loss of coverage. Some may qualify for coverage under Medicaid, but if they live in one of the 14 states that have not accepted Medicaid expansion, they may not have the option. COBRA, a federal program designed to bridge coverage between jobs, is often unaffordable.

Even those with insurance may find the costs associated with treatment to be beyond their means. Insurance companies impose cost-sharing measures, such as deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance, which could result in out-of-pocket costs of $1,300 or more in cases requiring hospitalization.

Some states and healthcare providers are taking steps to ensure that medical bills don’t prevent people from seeking testing and treatment. The governor of New Mexico has issued an emergency rule requiring insurance companies to eliminate out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 testing and treatment, and Massachusetts has notified carriers in the state that it expects the same of them. Insurance companies have started to take steps to reduce such costs, and some, like Aetna, Cigna, and Humana, have agreed to waive cost-sharing for testing and treatment at in-network facilities, though this could still result in unexpected out-of-network costs.

An alternative stimulus bill introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey in the US House of Representatives contains provisions to cover the cost of treatment, including eliminating cost-sharing and subsidizing coverage under COBRA for those who have lost employment-based insurance. As the US government grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, it should eliminate uncertainty for millions of Americans by making medical care affordable and accessible for some of the country’s most vulnerable people.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

As applications for jobless benefits surge, visitors to the Department of Labor in New York are turned away at the door by personnel due to closures over coronavirus concerns, March 18, 2020. 

© 2020 AP Photo/John Minchillo
 

(Washington, DC) – The United States government’s US$2 trillion economic package passed in response to COVID-19 contains important protections but will leave many low-income people unable to afford life necessities, Human Rights Watch said today. The urgency of the crisis demanded immediate if imperfect relief, but Congress should address these shortcomings in subsequent legislation.

The emergency Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed on March 27, 2020, includes more worker and family protections than earlier proposals. However, the relief is temporary, despite the expected long-term impact of COVID-19 on the economy, and excludes informal and undocumented taxpaying workers. It also provides billions of dollars in public support to large companies without sufficient public oversight or restrictions.

“The CARES Act is an important step, but not enough money will get to people who most need it, and it may not tide people over for very long,” said Lena Simet, senior poverty and inequality researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Congress should enact other measures to reduce people’s bills, and extend these benefits to informal workers, or many will struggle to keep their families housed and fed.”

Short-Term and Exclusionary Employment Protection

The CARES Act includes direct aid to families and extended employment benefits. Adults with incomes below $75,000 will receive a one-time payment of $1,200, with an additional $500 for every child aged 16 or under. Those who lose their jobs due to COVID-19, including self-employed and part-time employees, will receive $600 per week in addition to any amount to which they are eligible under state law for a period of 4 months. This will extend unemployment benefits to many workers previously ineligible for such protections, including those working in the “gig” economy or people who provide home care or domestic work, who are disproportionately women.

The temporary relief provided to many still risks leaving millions unable to afford necessities, such as rent, utilities, and food, when the law’s benefits expire. Congress should urgently take steps to protect people from losing access to utilities, including a moratorium on shutoffs for failure to pay, a step that would ensure continuous access to water necessary to comply with hygiene recommendations to prevent the spread of the disease. After the initial 4 months, the average weekly unemployment benefit in the US will return to just $372, and millions of low-wage workers such as salespeople will be eligible for as little as $234 in some states, which is equivalent to an income below the federal poverty line.

The risk that many will face prolonged financial hardship is exacerbated by inadequate requirements that all companies benefiting from the CARES Act maintain existing levels of employment. Even as companies reopen, they may hire only a small share of their pre-crisis workforce. In the US, in the week of March 22, 3.3 million people applied for unemployment, 5 times the previous record. The total number of workers who will lose their jobs as a result of the crisis is expected to reach between 7 and 15 million. The structure the CARES Act puts in place stands in marked contrast to many European government programs, which cover large percentages of company payrolls to prevent mass firings. This lower capacity and slower hiring in the US may especially harm women. In the last recession, more men gained employment than women in the first 2 years of recovery, with women over 50 years old experiencing the greatest difficulty in overcoming long-term unemployment. 

The CARES Act does not protect the more than eight million informal and unauthorized workers in the US, since only workers with social security numbers are eligible for benefits through the national unemployment system. In 2015, people with individual tax identification numbers, who are excluded from the act, paid $13.7 billion in net taxes, according to the American Immigration Council. These workers, also disproportionately women, are among the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the US, and even short-term unemployment without relief can put families at dire risk.

Typical of economic crises, poor households have been hit hardest by layoffs related to the coronavirus and they often take longest to recover. In New York City, 29 percent of households now have someone who is unemployed. Among poor households, this share is 34 percent.

“Congress’ short-term fix is likely to fall short for the millions of low-paid, vulnerable workers in the country who will face long-term economic insecurity,” Simet said. “Congress will need to tackle the structural inequalities in the US that will become more pronounced if the crisis is prolonged.”

Insufficient Oversight and Restrictions for Corporations

The CARES Act authorizes the treasury secretary to disburse $500 billion in loans, loan guarantees, and “other investments” to certain businesses, with minimal requirements to protect or support workers. Businesses receiving these funds need only retain them “to the extent practicable.” Restrictions on executive pay, dividend payouts, and stock buybacks are only in force for one year after these loans are repaid.

Oversight for the corporate disbursements is inadequate, Human Rights Watch said. The law establishes a Special Investigator General (SIG) to oversee these funds. However, the office can only subpoena documents and does not appear to be required to make its reports public. The law directs federal officials to respond to interview requests and instructs the SIG to report noncompliance to Congress. In signing the law, President Donald Trump included a statement effectively seeking to overturn these limited powers, claiming the right to withhold any information, including the SIG’s reports, from Congress. Leaving Congress in the dark would remove bipartisan oversight, which is especially problematic since the SIG is appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate, both of which are controlled by the same party. The law also establishes a separate Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a group of inspectors general that has jurisdiction over all coronavirus-related spending. However, four of the seven positions to be included in the committee are currently vacant.

The law’s conflicts-of-interest provision, intended to curtail mismanagement and corruption, prohibits companies in which government officials or their close relatives have a 20 percent or greater ownership stake from benefitting from these funds. However, the law does not require the treasury secretary to enact rules prohibiting conflicts of interest among contractors and employees hired to help disburse funds. Such a provision had been included in the 2008 stimulus package and is especially important for financial managers who are privy to nonpublic information. Moreover, the conflicts-of-interest provision does not extend to other parts of the $2 trillion package.

Trump and his family members, as real estate developers who have not divested from their businesses, can benefit from a provision that significantly reduces taxes for earnings from real estate sales. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, sold a $25 million stake in a real estate investment in March that could potentially benefit from this position, and Trump is reportedly exploring selling his Washington, DC hotel.

The CARES Act includes another $300 billion ostensibly for small businesses, but makes eligible all restaurants and hotels with fewer than 500 employees at a single location – which includes large chain stores. The size requirements in this law differ significantly from those of the government’s Small Business Administration, which restricts its support for businesses in the same category to those with revenues of no more than between $8 million and $30 million, depending on the subcategory. This is another source of funds that can potentially benefit Trump’s businesses.

“The CARES Act does not do enough for workers losing their jobs and includes an enormous transfer of public money to corporations without adequate oversight,” said Sarah Saadoun, business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Congress needs to fix these shortcomings, otherwise the most vulnerable will bear the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis.”

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A street seller checks his phone while wearing a mask to protect himself from the spread of the new coronavirus, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, March 23, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery

At times like these, when the coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to close in over 130 countries, offices to shutter, and people to practice “social distancing,” the internet is providing a lifeline.

More than ever, it has become our public square to access critical information and to meet. It enables the rights to education, health, and religion with telemedicine, schools, and even religious worship going online, and may be essential for saving peoples’ livelihoods and key parts of economies.

However, this global shift assumes that all people have access to the internet. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

Approximately half the world’s population – 46 percent – is not connected to the internet according to United Nations estimates, despite the fact that internet access is considered a fundamental enabler of human rights and governments around the world have committed to provide universal and affordable internet access by 2020. People in the least developed countries remain the least connected, but digital divides exist in better connected countries, too.

In times of social distancing, people without a reliable connection may be disconnected entirely or risk their health to find a connection. Some students in China reportedly hiked for hours and braved the cold in search of a decent cell signal to listen to online classes on mountaintops. One in five school aged children in the United States don’t have access to a computer or high-speed internet at home. And women and older people are less likely to have internet access in some countries.

In this time of crisis, it is essential to ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible service. Governments and companies should take specific measures to mitigate disproportionate hardships that poor and marginalized populations experience. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission issued a pledge that commits participating companies to waive late payments and termination notices and open WIFI hotspots to people in need. Some mobile operators in Africa are offering zero-rated access to essential websites, and in South Africa, the official COVID-19 website was made free of charge, with no data or airtime required.

More can be done, such as lifting data caps and eliminating eligibility requirements for low-income targeted plans and supporting community-based solutions. These should complement longer-term strategies that make affordable internet access available for all.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Grammy award-winning hip hop recording artist Lecrae assembles a portable wash station in College Park, Georgia, March 19, 2020. The wash stations were distributed by Lecrae and volunteers with Love Beyond Walls, a non-profit, throughout Atlanta in areas with a high density of homeless persons. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Ron Harris
Today is World Water Day, but as the world braces for the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is little to celebrate. The need for good hygiene like handwashing is key to protecting public health and responding to the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has emphasized this, noting that the provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions is essential to protecting health during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

But for the 780 million people around the world who lack access to an improved water source and 2.5 billion who lack access to proper sanitation, this guidance is a stark reminder of how vulnerable they are to COVID-19 and other illnesses.

For example, in Canada, boil-water advisories are disproportionately present in First Nation communities on reserves. Many families previously interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported skin problems which they, and some of their doctors, believed were associated with water conditions in their homes. Some reported limiting hygiene habits as a result of these concerns over water quality. And in Venezuela, handwashing and social distancing will be difficult to implement in a country where water shortages are routine, supplies are expensive, and people struggle to find food. Limited availability of water in public hospitals makes it difficult for even health professionals to wash their hands – making responding to COVID-19 all the more challenging.
 
Prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers are also at elevated risk. Human Rights Watch has documented how in prisons, for instance in Egypt and the United States, unreliable water access and deplorable hygiene and sanitation conditions make the virus’ spread all the more likely.

Asylum seekers, refugees living in camps and slums, and people without shelter, are similarly vulnerable. In the US, for instance, the approximately 550,000 people living on the streets struggle to access showers and facilities to wash their hands, especially in cities like Los Angeles, which have extremely high concentrations of people without homes. Homeless shelters in these cities have crowded conditions, conducive to the spread of COVID-19. And globally, more than one billion people live in slums or informal settlements, where access to adequate water and sanitation is scarce.
 
International human rights law mandates governments to ensure sufficient, safe, and accessible water and the highest attainable standard of health at all times. But the current crisis makes action all the more urgent. Governments should immediately implement measures to ensure access to clean water for all communities as a critical matter of public health and human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

People wait in line to be screened for the coronavirus at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, New York, March 19, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
 
(Washington, DC) – The United States government should ensure that the costs of treatment for COVID-19 are not a barrier for anyone to access health care, Human Rights Watch said today.

The potential financial burden resulting from medical care or hospitalization may deter many Americans, particularly those who are uninsured or underinsured, from seeking care. That could lead to catastrophic outcomes for themselves, their families and their communities. On March 18, 2020, the US House and Senate passed a stimulus package that only addresses the cost associated with diagnostic testing and associated medical visits, but not treatment for COVID-19.

“Americans who can’t pay for COVID-19 treatment without fear of huge medical bills may choose to avoid medical care entirely,” said Komala Ramachandra, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “That will not just hurt people who have the illness, but most likely cause it to spread further.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) project that between 2.4 and 21 million people in the US who contract COVID-19 will need hospitalization, with a significant number of those patients requiring intensive care. Experts estimate that the cost of COVID-19 hospitalization could be over $20,000 per person. For Americans with private insurance, that could translate to $1,300 or more in out-of-pocket costs in the form of deductibles and coinsurance payments.

Uninsured Americans could be billed directly for hospitalization at rates even higher than those with insurance. Low-income Americans face a double burden. They tend to have higher rates of pre-existing chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to serious cases of COVID-19 and the associated medical costs.

While older Americans are insured under Medicare, 28 million non-elderly Americans are uninsured. That number has grown for the first time in a decade as the current administration has tried to undo the Affordable Healthcare Act. People of color and children have been particularly affected by the falling numbers with insurance coverage. In addition, nearly one out of every three people in the US is underinsured, meaning they have insurance but it carries high deductibles, co-pays, and other out-of-pocket expenses. People with these high-cost plans are often low-wage workers, making it even more difficult for them to afford health care.

The growing number of people in the US without adequate coverage has meant that more and more families are struggling to pay their medical bills. A recent study found that more than 137 million Americans are facing financial hardship because of their medical bills, and that medical issues contribute to two-thirds of bankruptcies.

The high cost of care could lead people to avoid testing and treatment entirely, potentially exposing more people to the virus. A third of families already say they chose not to seek medical care generally in the last year because of cost. Compounding this is that many people also do not receive paid sick leave. If people cannot access affordable health care and they don’t have sick leave, they may continue to spread the virus as they have no option but to continue working, with nearly six out of every ten Americans living paycheck to paycheck.

Initiatives at the federal and state level are targeting free testing for COVID-19, but have not yet extended to the cost of treatment. Some states have mandated and some private insurance providers have pledged to waive co-pays and costs for testing but have not made similar commitments for treatment.

The US government has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that this serious public health crisis does not also become a human rights crisis because people do not have adequate medical care, Human Rights Watch said. The US government has several options to ensure that the cost of treatment does not become a barrier to care.

In their next legislation to address the crisis, Congress could appropriate funds to ensure that treatment costs are covered for anyone unable to afford them and to reduce or eliminate out-of-pocket costs for those with insurance. The director of the CDC can also authorize payment for care and treatment, including costs associated with quarantine and isolation. Both Democratic presidential candidates have proposed mobilizing federal funding to ensure that treatment and care costs are covered for all Americans, whether insured or not.

State governments can also take steps to increase coverage, including by adopting Medicaid expansion, which would reach an additional two million people currently in a coverage gap, and eliminating or drastically reducing their out-of-pocket costs. The federal and state governments can also open special enrollment periods in health insurance marketplaces that would allow uninsured individuals to enroll.

For the roughly 2.2 million people who are currently detained in US prisons and jails, access to adequate health care is critical. A number of states have taken steps to eliminate co-pays for incarcerated populations in response to COVID-19. Local, state, and federal governments need to take steps and secure funding to ensure all incarcerated individuals have access to COVID-19 testing, preventative care, and treatment at no cost.

“For Americans struggling to make ends meet, getting treatment for the coronavirus could be a choice between getting healthy or going broke,” Ramachandra said. “That’s a choice that no one should have to make and the impact on the US could be tragic.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A restaurant employee with her son leaves with her paycheck, in Brooklyn, New York, March 19, 2020. The restaurant company, which has closed its four locations due to the coronavirus, laid off 650 of 850 employees. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

(New York) – The COVID-19 outbreak in the United States has put a spotlight on economic inequalities and a fragile social safety net that leaves vulnerable communities to bear the economic brunt of the crisis, Human Rights Watch said today. US policymakers will need to consider these underlying inequalities in responding urgently to the mounting challenges of the pandemic.

While the virus infects people regardless of wealth, the poor will be most affected due to longstanding segregation by income and race, reduced economic mobility, and the high cost of medical care. Low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to the virus, have higher mortality rates, and suffer economically. In times of economic crisis, these vulnerabilities will be more pronounced for marginal groups – identified by race, gender, and immigration status.

“The US government needs a response to the coronavirus that prevents people from having to choose between a missed paycheck and risking their and their families’ health,” said Lena Simet, senior poverty and inequality researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should target its economic stimulus packages to the low-income communities that will be hit first and hardest, and ensure an adequate standard of living for all.”

Low-income jobs in fields like retail, hospitality, childcare, and the gig economy cannot be performed remotely, and in the US the majority do not offer paid sick leave or health insurance. Research has shown that low income is associated with higher rates of chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, factors that increase vulnerability to COVID-19. Most of the 40.6 million people living in poverty in the US have no savings to weather a lack of income, and even stocking up on food can represent an impossible financial hurdle.

In the US, economic inequality is closely linked to a racial divide in income and wealth. Incomes and wealth are lower, and poverty is most acute among Blacks and Latinos. About 21 percent of Black people and 18 percent of Hispanic people live under the poverty line, compared with eight percent of white people. The median white household has 41 times more wealth (measured as the sum of assets held by a family minus total household debt) than the median Black family and 22 times more than the median Latino family. Past recessions have disproportionally affected Black and Latino families, partly because they have less wealth to fall back on.

Due to the lack of resources to prepare and protect against the coronavirus, the poor face a higher risk of contracting and subsequently spreading the virus. Under international human rights law, the government has an obligation to protect people’s right to an adequate standard of living, which includes ensuring adequate food and nutrition, the highest attainable standard of health, and social security.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was passed by the US House of Representatives and the Senate, is intended to address the effects of the coronavirus and provide a safety net for families and workers whose livelihoods are affected. Human Rights Watch is concerned that the legislation guarantees sick leave to only 20 percent of private-sector workers, because companies with more than 500 employees are exempted, and those with fewer than 50 employees can apply for exemption. Many workers at large restaurant chains, supermarkets, and retailers who fall in these categories and often have low-wage positions thus remain unprotected.

The US government has also considered large payroll tax cuts and bailouts to the airline, hotel, and shale industries. Such responses are expensive, with little or no direct benefit for most working people. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that eliminating the payroll tax would largely benefit the richest 20 percent of taxpayers, and the benefits going to the poorest 20 percent would make little difference in meeting their needs.

Moreover, payroll tax cuts would not benefit people without income, who are furloughed, or whose working hours have been cut in response to COVID-19. Unauthorized and informal workers, like street vendors, caregivers, or construction workers, would also be left out. And even workers who would benefit from the tax cut would only receive an amount proportionate to their low income, which would be insufficient to protect them from falling behind on rent or mortgage payments.

The US government’s most recent proposal is to send checks directly to everyone living or legally working in the US, except those making more than $1 million a year, by the end of April. Direct payments are intended to provide immediate help to workers who lost their jobs or have hours cut back as economic activity contracts from social distancing measures.

While immediate income support is important, long-term and targeted support will be needed, Human Rights Watch said. If the crisis prevails for several months, one-time income support will not prevent families from facing foreclosure or eviction. For people working remotely, direct checks are less crucial than for those who lost jobs but are not eligible for unemployment benefits. Checks also won’t reach the eight million unauthorized workers in the US, who generally earn low wages in restaurants, hotels, and on farms.

The government should consider a response that would support all low-income workers and people who have lost wages. Direct payments should be accompanied with assurances that people can get child benefits and disability and social security benefits in the event of unemployment, sickness, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control.

“The US government policies proposed so far have yet to take into account existing social and economic inequalities,” Simet said. “The government should strengthen the safety net to protect millions of people who face devastating job and wage loss and inability to pay essential bills. Unless the stimulus package tackles those issues head on, it won’t protect those most in need, and that is bad for everyone in America.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am