Ciara Hackett, Ciaran O’Kelly, Samantha Hopkins and Clare Patton


Business and human rights (BHR) has steadily gained prominence in the last two decades. Increasingly, businesses are being assigned human rights responsibilities by governments and civil society, alongside corporate social responsibility initiatives. These responsibilities are evidenced in the rise of corporate guidelines for human rights and mandatory human rights regulations at national and international levels. At an institutional level, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, alongside the National Action Plans mandated by the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises give substance to these responsibilities and shape how businesses might evidence their commitment to and compliance with their obligations in this space. Thematically, human rights due diligence is defining the field with EU developments as well as UK proposals closing out 2023. Due diligence requires relevant bodies to exercise reasonable care to ensure that their activity (or that of their subsidiaries/sub-contractors and so on) will not lead to a human rights impact. Where an impact occurs, there is a requirement to remedy.

Within this framing, in our recent article in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly, we were interested in exploring two contextual phenomena in tandem: first, location and, second, relatedly, how a global event might be experienced at a local level. We looked at BHR in Northern Ireland, and specifically the experience of BHR, Northern Ireland and Covid.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is shaped by a legacy of conflict inescapable for the ordinary aspects of social and economic life. We addressed BHR in the region from the everyday economic structures of the economy; to the lacunae opened by the border; to the more direct interplay of legacy and systemic ill-health. We incorporated statistics on mental ill health, intergenerational trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These provide a picture of the conflict’s less-obvious legacy: namely, that the gaps both revealed and opened by conflict can settle into being an integral part of economic and social life.  

Northern Ireland’s economy is populated by micro, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), often feeding into larger companies’ supply chains. Where negative human rights impacts are documented, they sit mostly in areas of labour-based modern slavery (and see also). Northern Ireland’s SMEs typically fall below the £36-million turnover threshold for an Annual Transparency in Supply Chain Statement as required by the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

We note, however, that businesses in Northern Ireland often encounter such BHR obligations, not directly through law but indirectly through contractual obligations imposed by their larger clients. They encounter BHR as a matter of private not public governance. This is all compounded by the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland which acts as both a regulatory barrier and sometimes a vector of BHR harms (specifically industrialised cross-border trafficking).  


The Covid pandemic’s impact was felt worldwide, of course. Drawing on this BHR frame we were interested to explore how that impact was felt in the context of NI’s specific conditions. In other words, Northern Ireland is interesting in terms of how its sui generis conditions shape BHR areas of concern.

Workers’ rights

While Covid’s primary impact was to public health, it unleashed and/or exposed many secondary impacts. Vulnerabilities to workplace discrimination were and are entangled with health, for instance. Women, those with a disability, those from an LGBTQIA+ background and those from ethnically diverse backgrounds are more vulnerable to these types of discrimination. For Northern Ireland, other groups could be added, particularly victims of conflict and those impacted by intergenerational trauma from conflict.

How law responds to multi-layered crises and emergencies is key to BHR. The focus on due diligence, audit and other processes emphasises BHR’s use of business knowledge and procedures to translate human rights into corporate speak. Whether this can be turned towards the pandemic’s impacts requires nuanced dialogue between business and states. This must start with an understanding of interactions of work with vulnerabilities, precarities and context, and how a more sustainable economy will require that such inequalities be better addressed, especially if we are to avoid an ‘equality regression’.

Migrant workers

For Northern Ireland, we considered migrant workers employed in the local economy as well as those employed somewhere within the supply chain of Northern Irish companies. Some sectors, such as tourism and seasonal agriculture, rely heavily on migrant labour. Whereas these workers may not experience the extremes of exploitation faced elsewhere, exploitation can still occur.

The pandemic meant that some workers were trapped: they could neither work, nor return home. They may not have had access to benefits and the expiry of work visas and permits may have led to a rise in undocumented workers. These people are at great risk of falling into cycles of modern slavery – where legal protections and strategies in Northern Ireland are considerably limited and are now exacerbated by Brexit.


Victims’ access to an effective remedy has become a cornerstone of the BHR movement. Remedy need not be limited to specifically human rights venues, but also micro-level arenas such as employment tribunals, arbitration proceedings and so on. During Covid-19, this access was severely diminished: courts and tribunals closed their doors and (slowly) moved online and NGOs that typically advised victims and victim groups were disrupted. These avenues have still not recovered.

From the corporate perspective, community-business engagement became problematic. Typical routes to stakeholder engagement (town-hall meetings) were disrupted and the move to online disenfranchised those with limited/without digital literacy, remote communities, those who relied on libraries and community organisations to participate, those without access to relevant hardware/software, and indeed those who had no access to the internet at all.

Post-pandemic, opportunities exist for business to rethink how they engage with their publics. Glimmers of hope from the Covid-19 experience can be evidenced in the shared dichotomy for delivering aid, medication, groceries etc. This promoted visibility of organisations, shared community trust and engagement.

Framework for futureproofing the economy

Engagement between business, community and state

Conditions for engagement with economic life are a matter both for business and regulators. BHR frameworks can offer a new regulatory approach because they propose human rights as a common interest within which business, state and stakeholder interests can play out. Whereas due diligence and corporate engagement with BHR is weaker than direct state intervention, it allows for greater sensitivity to contingent conditions (both transient (Covid) and more permanent (legacy from conflict)).


The unique economic and political situation in Northern Ireland coupled with the legal failure to implement the Equality Act 2010 risks certain types of labour exploitation. Coupled with a North Atlantic trend towards hybrid working and the additional regulator challenges this presents (eg around wage theft), this means that reform in labour laws and modern slavery may acquire a particular urgency. A due diligence framework that applies to SMEs might help mediate between the conduct of relatively small-scale contributors and state enforcement.


Investment and business activities have their own environmental effects contributing to the social risks from the pandemic. Considering environment through narrow legislative frames alone (eg Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022) fails to recognise the diversity of impacts that climate change might have.


We make four concluding points:

  1. Context is crucial if BHR is to develop. We need to know how BHR is lived on the ground.
  2. Local experiences and interpretations of BHR are as important as international guidelines.
  3. Covid demonstrated how a global event could be experienced in different (but also the same) ways depending on the location.
  4. An holistic approach to BHR affords the opportunity to consider context and locality.