The chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected modern slavery and human trafficking. It has exacerbated the drivers of exploitation, caused traffickers to change tactics, and forced governments and NGOs working in the sector to adapt their strategies.
The Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) produced a policy brief discussing these impacts. The research focuses on labour exploitation, and provides insight into the setbacks and advances the pandemic has caused to anti-trafficking efforts. The authors, Olivia Hesketh and Owain Johnstone, make a series of recommendations to create systems that are better-prepared to deal with such a crisis in the future.
The report highlights the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic, and how in turn this increases people’s vulnerability to human trafficking and exploitation across the globe. This is for two main reasons: first, increasing levels of poverty, inequality, and unemployment – three key drivers of exploitation – have increased individuals’ vulnerability to exploitation, particularly in low- and middle-income countries and among already at-risk groups; second, the changes in demand for goods have worsened working conditions for many. The practical impacts of this have included excessive overtime (such as in PPE manufacturing) or greater job insecurity, reduced income, and fewer working opportunities (such as in retail and hospitality). All the while, retailers could not undertake due diligence due to restricted movement.
The report also notes how the pandemic changed the nature of trafficking. For example, there was a significant increase in online recruitment and, in the UK, an increase in ‘county lines’ referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in 2020 involving children. However, restrictions on international travel led to fewer adult referrals.
According to the brief, pandemic restrictions in the UK affected survivors of exploitation in their recovery, particularly their mental wellbeing. This was largely due to isolation or unsanitary or shared accommodation with difficult social dynamics. Delays in the legal system, the NRM, and asylum decisions also left survivors in the UK feeling in limbo, which the non-British national survivors described as “immigration lockdown”.
While the pandemic has created many setbacks to the progress made in tackling modern slavery up until 2019, the report notes that it also provided some breakthroughs. For example, remote justice mechanisms (such as remote trials) enabled survivors of modern slavery to participate in court proceedings who may otherwise have not done so. The shift to online working has also provided more space for collaboration and awareness-raising about modern slavery, as well as training and evidence gathering. Further research will be needed to understand the overall effectiveness of remote support provision.
While international law obliges governments to uphold their anti-slavery work even in times of crisis, the pandemic exposed the ways in which existing legal frameworks do not account for public health emergencies. The rolling back of anti-trafficking actions in many countries shows the urgent need to amend this and to make clear states’ obligations during such times.
The Modern Slavery PEC’s report shows where systems for exploitation prevention and for recovery need to be strengthened, to improve the identification of modern slavery, to protect individuals from it, and to support survivors including in times of global crisis. It also notes that more research is needed into the impact of Covid-19 on other forms of exploitation to gain a rounded understanding of the impact of the pandemic on modern slavery.
The full report can be accessed here.
By Emily Gregg for Hope for Justice
See more Hope for Justice news and analysis about the impacts of the pandemic: