Human Rights Guidance Tool for the Financial Sector
Human Rights Issues by Sector

Case Studies

May 2017, China: Mega-regional infrastructure investments are a significant milestone for Chinese efforts to encourage trade, investment and economic integration. More...

August 2014, Myanmar: The Japanese International Co-operation Agency has issued a proposal for infrastructure development in Karen and Mon states, areas badly damaged by civil war with many refugee communities. More...

May 2011, China: The Shenzhen government was under pressure to ensure that the infrastructure for the University Games in August, the biggest sporting event in the city's history, was finished on time, threatening migrant workers’ rights. More...


Infrastructure refers to the basic physical service systems for society. It includes:

  • Ports, harbours and marinas
  • Dams and reservoirs
  • Railways and goods yards
  • Roads, tramways and subways
  • Transfer pipelines
  • Water, sewage and power supply systems
  • Airports
  • Industrial, commercial and residential buildings

Infrastructure covers the life-cycle of projects and developments: design, construction, operation and decommissioning.

Key human rights related risks

  • Workforce health and safety, particularly during the construction phase
  • Influx of migrant workers during the construction phase
  • The impact on communities and their traditional livelihoods due to development of large areas of land, or reduced access to water
  • Forced resettlement of communities, including indigenous peoples
  • Environmental impact on communities, including noise, waste and other forms of pollution, both during and after construction
  • Use of security services to guard installations.

Examples of voluntary and trade initiatives

  • Amazon Watch: working directly with indigenous communities to protect their lands. One of their current campaigns is against large dams which impede river flow, impacting on local livelihoods which depend on river eco-systems
  • Sustainable Rural Infrastructure Improvement Project: this Bangladesh project focuses on improving road access for poor communities to improve economic opportunities.

There are links to these initiatives in Resources.

Core Operations

Health and Safety

The construction industry has one of the worst health and safety records of any industrial sector. During the construction phase of a project, this will be a significant issue.

Main issues for the infrastructure sector:

  • Fatal and non-fatal incidents caused by lack of proper procedures, failure to follow procedures, inadequate risk assessment, poor risk management, faulty or inappropriate tools and equipment
  • Fatal and non-fatal incidents and injuries which could be prevented with relevant training, information and education of employees delivered in appropriate languages and protective clothing/equipment
  • Spread of communicable disease among workers due to lack of information, advice and/or poor living conditions
  • Employee exposure to protests from local people or pressure groups opposing the development
  • Working excessively long hours under strenuous conditions may lead to accident or injury.

Migrant workers

There can be many migrant workers in the workforce during the construction phase of a large infrastructure project due to a lack of local skills or a trained workforce.

Main issues for the infrastructure sector:

  • Migrant workers may be subject to degrading or life-threatening treatment or lack of equal opportunity for promotion, due to discrimination against workers from other cultures or races
  • There may also be discrimination with regard to working hours, rates of pay, proper training, housing conditions and access to health care or education
  • Migrant and immigrant workers can have their travel documents held by the employer as a condition of work. This detracts from freedom of movement and is a form of bonded labour.

Security of operations

This covers the activities undertaken by a company or their contractors to protect their assets and ensure the safety of their employees. If infrastructure facilities are in areas of current or recent conflict, the risk of security problems increases.

Main issues for the infrastructure sector:

  • In conflict zones or failing states, there is potential for security contractors to be complicit in fuelling conflict by aiding illegal armed groups, including payment of protection money
  • Security forces may over-react to protests against a project. This can result in an escalation of violence, leading to the injury or death of union members and others exercising their right to protest
  • Security operations should consider the safety of workers beyond the boundaries of the project - when travelling to and from work or in housing facilities
  • Lack of effective security can lead to attacks, theft of dangerous equipment and an unsafe environment for workers

Controls and mitigants

  • Compliance with local/national law is the starting point
  • Even if local/national law, standards or enforcement are lower than internationally accepted good practice, a company should apply the same consistent and effective management practices globally (on workforce, community health and safety, supplier screening, site safety and security)
  • Health and safety plan communicated to all workers in their own language and supported by robust governance procedures
  • Emergency preparedness/accident response plan to ensure safety of workers in the event of a major incident and to limit the effects of the incident as far as possible
  • Policies and procedures around anti-discrimination and equal opportunities, including the protection and welfare of migrant workers
  • Policies and procedures around security, covering the employment and training of security workers; dealing with violent and non-violent protests; and use of local police force if arrests or detention are necessary
  • Companies should communicate their policies regarding ethical conduct and human rights to security providers, including the need for personnel to receive adequate and effective training
  • Security contractors should be competent and the number of staff deployed should be appropriate and proportional to the need
  • In cases where physical force is used by security, such incidents should be reported to the appropriate authorities and to the company. Where force is used, medical aid should be provided to all injured persons
  • Security contractors should respect the confidentiality of information obtained as a result of its position as a security provider.

Supply Chain

Companies face human rights issues and risks in their supply chain, as purchasers of goods and services from other companies/sub-contractors which may be associated with poor practice or controversy.

Construction materials including metal and aggregates are a major part of the infrastructure supply chain. For more information, see Mining and Metals.


Livelihood and standard of living

This covers the rights to work, a fair wage and an adequate standard of living. These rights also support the realisation of other rights such as the right to health, housing, participation in the culture of the community, education and the right to a family life.

Main issues for the infrastructure sector:

  • Threat to life and livelihoods due to use of land and other resources previously depended on by local populations. For example, the development of ports may disrupt local fisheries; dam projects may disrupt local river-based economies
  • Reduced access to land may affect current livelihood or subsistence
  • Reduced standard of living due to environmental impacts (such as the use of hazardous substances and materials, water and soil contamination, destruction of habitats and resources, noise associated with airports and roads, and the visual impact of large projects which substantially alter the landscape)
  • Lack of effective security creates health and safety impacts for local communities. These include dangerous sites, equipment or machinery and transport movements. Risks are especially high for children and young people who are unaware of the dangers of machinery, falling objects, deep water and so on
  • Loss of local income after the end of the construction phase
  • Strain on existing local infrastructure and public services such as transport networks. Local people may have reduced access to these services.

Relocation of communities

Communities may need to be relocated if their current location is to be re-developed as part of an infrastructure project. Their needs may include residential land, land for agriculture, fisheries and traditional employment and land used for community activities.

Main issues for the infrastructure sector:

  • Governments may take responsibility for consulting with communities on relocation and ensuring that agreed compensation is paid. Companies involved with a project may be publicly associated with any government poor practice (or perceived poor practice) in this respect
  • A lack of agreement by a relocated community may also result in future conflict, potentially leading to delays and additional costs
  • Lack of consultation, and free, prior and informed consent of local populations can lead to arbitrary destruction of identity and livelihood
  • Forced removal of local or indigenous groups from lands; this may be carried out by governments which do not recognise these groups or their rights
  • If communities are split or separated from neighbouring communities this will affect their viability and way of life
  • Lack of, or unfair, compensation, or lack of adequate and appropriate alternative provision of assets, land and resources
  • Damage or loss of access to cultural/historical/religious sites which form the basis of the identity of local or indigenous groups.

Impact of migrant population

This includes the human rights of both the migrants and the local community. It includes rights such as the right to health, adequate standard of living, and non-discrimination.

Main issues for the infrastructure sector:

  • Infrastructure projects often need large workforces during the development phase. The workers may be mainly migrants. Some projects (such as airports) will continue to provide high levels of employment, while others (such as dams or roads) will provide relatively low level ongoing employment.
  • Mainly male migrant populations away from their families are a major market for prostitution. This can lead to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV/Aids) within the area and to families when workers go home
  • The standard of housing provided to workers can be poor, leading to illness. Diseases may be passed on to the local population
  • There can be social conflict and a negative impact on social cohesion.

Controls and mitigants

  • A stakeholder engagement plan to ensure full and effective consultation with all stakeholders
  • Community awareness and education plan as part of health and safety measures
  • Assessment to evaluate a project's positive and adverse effects on indigenous peoples and to examine alternatives if adverse impacts are significant
  • Policies and procedures on the conservation and sustainable use of finite resources including water, energy and land, which take account of local community need for these resources now and in the future
  • Policies and procedures to ensure free, prior and informed consent of local and indigenous communities; ensuring that vulnerable groups are part of the consultation process and including a complaints mechanism for local communities
  • Policy and procedures on the relocation of communities, including measures around consultation, prompt and adequate compensation and continuation of livelihoods
  • Policies and procedures on the conservation of cultural, historical or religious sites which form the basis of the identity of local and/or indigenous groups.

Society and Governments

Terrorism and sabotage

Infrastructure projects may be targets for terrorism or sabotage during their construction and operational phases.

Main issues for the infrastructure sector:

  • Restrictions on local people's movement or access to facilities, as part of the overall security provision for site
  • Discrimination against some sectors of society due to government views on their likely involvement in terrorism or sabotage
  • Catastrophic damage to the local community, including large scale injury, deaths and damage to community infrastructure and livelihoods in the event of an attack.

Balancing local and national needs

Major infrastructure projects can attract international support and finance but may also detract from the delivery of basic services to local communities.

Main issues for the infrastructure sector:

  • Ensuring that communities' needs for essential services are met and that public resources are not diverted from these services
  • Ensuring that local people are able to participate fully and freely in consultations and to express their views

Controls and mitigants

  • Compliance with local/national law is the starting point
  • Even if local/national law, standards or enforcement are lower than internationally accepted good practice, a company should apply the same consistent and effective management practices globally (on workforce, community health and safety, supplier screening, site safety and security)
  • Ensuring that there is full and free consultation with local communities
  • Ensuring that agreements with host governments reflect the rights of indigenous and local people
  • Clear emergency plans in place to deal with the company's role in reacting to and managing large scale incidents.

See also the broader UNEP FI Environmental and Social Risk Briefing and Resources.


December 2014     United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative