The Covid-19 pandemic continues to change the landscape of the global workforce. Millions of people are now out of work as businesses are hurting. However, these establishments may unwittingly overlook the human rights impact of their cost-cutting measures. This is why experts from the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab are now conducting an urgent review of the impact of a pandemic on modern slavery survivors and victims.
As part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19 and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the study aims to analyze how measures in place for modern slavery survivors and victims are being affected by the pandemic. The research will also offer recommendations for mitigation, reports Phys.org.
Covid-19 to cause spikes in modern slavery
According to trafficking experts, the pandemic will likely cause spikes in modern slavery. So, the University of Nottingham researchers will utilize web-monitoring tools, real-time data, survivor insights, and analysis of responses and risks during previous disasters to determine areas for action. Identifying these locations will help them protect people who are at risk of re-trafficking or new exploitation.
The Rights Lab has already documented 77 substantive observations from international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments since the lockdown started. These observations are about the possible consequences of the pandemic for modern slavery. The Rights Lab team has also collaborated with the University of Sheffield and a global NGO for modern slavery survivors, the Survivor Alliance.
Vicky Brotherton, project head, said that Covid-19 has produced a complex risk environment that could hinder anti-slavery mitigation unless the risks will be accessed efficiently. Before the pandemic, there was already an increasing number of risks articulated across the anti-slavery industry. The Rights Lab study will enable civil society organizations and governments to effectively respond and understand these risks so that the pandemic will not jeopardize the recovery of modern slavery survivors and will not increase the victims of modern slavery.
Modern slavery: figures
According to the Unseen UK, an organization that works towards a world without slavery, there are an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide that are in modern slavery. This includes 24.9 million people in forced labor and 15.4 million people in forced marriage. About 70% of these modern slavery victims are women and girls and their number equates to 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world.
One in four victims of modern slavery are children but there is no typical victim of slavery. Victims are children of all ages, women, men, nationalities, and ethnicities. However, it is prevalent within socially or minority excluded groups and the most vulnerable. Some of the key drivers that contribute to someone’s vulnerability in becoming a victim of modern slavery are poverty, lack of education, limited opportunities at home, unstable political and social conditions, war, and economic imbalances.
Covid-19 creating new risks for modern slavery victims
For people who are vulnerable to slavery and are enslaved, the social and economic disruption caused by the pandemic is affecting their lives in profound ways. Non-governmental organization Anti-Slavery International said that for young people and children, the social isolation caused by Covid-19 may increase their vulnerability to abuse and grooming.
For instance, some Quranic schools in West Africa in normal times carry out forced child begging. In those same establishments, where many kids are now confined to their school premises, children could be subject to punishment and increased abuse because they are not bringing in an income. The challenges of satisfactory hygiene, social distancing, and self-isolation are particularly difficult for vulnerable communities living on the streets, in slums, or crowded refugee and displaced persons camps and the enslaved people.
In Mauritania, people born into slavery are obliged to be confined within their workplace or the homes of wealthy families to avoid traveling. Sadly, this led to an impossible situation: either to continue to work but their families without resources or to be unemployed and starve.
Debt bondage and regional distribution of modern slavery
International Labour Organization’s Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report also highlights that debt bondage has affected half of all victims of forced labor imposed by private industries. Over half the men and women in forced labor exploitation worldwide were held in debt bondage.
Of the total victims of forced labor exploitation, 57.6% are women and 42.4% are men. For state-imposed forced labor, 40.6% of victims are female and 59.4% are male. The sectoral distribution of victims of forced labor exploitation are domestic work (24%), construction (18%), manufacturing (15%), agriculture, forestries, and fishing (11%), accommodation and food service activities (10%), wholesale and trade (9%), personal services (7%), mining and quarrying (4%), and begging (1%).
The figures for the numbers of persons in modern slavery likewise underscore that majority of them are in Asia and Pacific (25,000 victims or 62%) followed by the Africa region (9,230 or 23%), Europe and Central Asia (3,600 or 9%), and the Arab States (1,950 or 5%).
Means of coercion
Most victims of forced labor suffered multiple forms of coercion from recruiters or employers as a way of preventing them from being able to leave the situation. About 23.6% of victims had their wages withheld or were prevented from leaving by threats of non-payment of due wages, 17% are coerced by threats of violence, 16.4% by physical violence, 11.8% by threats against family, 9.1% had to repay debt, 6.7% is locked in work or living quarters, another 6.7% is too far from home and had nowhere to go, 5% were punished through deprivation of food, sleep, etc., and 4.3% are coerced into forced labor by withholding their passports or other documents.
With coronavirus lockdowns implemented across the world, it has limited the work of anti-slavery organizations and forced people to return to slavery or put their family at risk of trafficking and exploitation. Financial crisis and poverty have amplified the major drivers of modern slavery. Not to mention that the pandemic may cause people towards a risky labor market either because they lose their jobs as a result of the health crisis or they can’t afford to pay for their medical care. Potential donors to anti-slavery efforts have also turned their attention in the pandemic, making it harder to sustain government response to end modern-day slavery.