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Ending slavery after Covid-19

The pandemic has short and long term impacts on the problem of modern slavery, which traps an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide.

Ending modern slavery by 2030 is part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG target 8.7) and the global anti-slavery community will now need to adapt its work to the impacts of Covid-19. Within this process of adapting are potential anti-slavery innovations for a post-pandemic world.

In the short term, now and over the next few months, responses to Covid-19 may divert state resources away from other social issues, including modern slavery. In the UK, provisions in the 2015 Modern Slavery Act on support for victims may be compromised. This risks driving survivors out of care and potentially back into slavery. NHS staff will be stretched to capacity and may divert their attention from concerns such as modern slavery. Economic contraction and reallocation of resources may undermine the anti-slavery work of third-sector organisations, law enforcement and local government.

In the long term, over the next year and beyond, it is likely that Covid-19 will bring large-scale economic contraction and downturn, high rates of unemployment, restructuring of national economies, a corporate debt crisis, financial contagion and an emerging markets crisis. This risks leading to a longer-term collapse of global demand and a shrivelling of value chains back to the Global North. Damage to trade flows that puts pressure on Global South countries would hit labour-intensive industries, creating incentives to cut labour costs. This may increase both supply and demand for forced labour.

However, across both time frames, there are opportunities for anti-slavery actors to help catalyse positive developments in response to the pandemic. For example, in the area of anti-slavery communication and awareness-raising, service providers will assess whether survivors of modern slavery are receiving public health information in an accessible format (as they otherwise risk not getting treatment and being a conduit for the virus’ spread), and they may identify new ways of communicating better to reach these communities. Anti-slavery education initiatives, aimed at prevention, will shift to e-learning and small-group settings, and may prove to be more effective. As NGOs based in the Global South try to reach and inform vulnerable communities, they may adopt techniques that can endure beyond the current crisis, including integrating modern slavery awareness as part of community-based training.

"There are opportunities for anti-slavery actors to help catalyse positive developments in response to the pandemic."
Professor Zoe Trodd

In the area of anti-slavery intervention programming, NGOs and governments will assess the immediate impacts of reduced incomes on the risk of modern slavery, and may identify alternative work that can be expanded at scale in order to reduce vulnerability to slavery during high unemployment. These programmes may provide a model for long-term anti-slavery programme design. As social distancing changes how people build and maintain social connections, the anti-slavery community may adapt the technologies and approaches of isolation to promote survivor recovery and support social integration. Anti-slavery actors may be able to maintain positive changes during the pandemic to community bonds, caring approaches and volunteering efforts, in order to support ongoing anti-slavery resilience-building programmes.

In the area of anti-slavery business and economic action, there may be opportunities for public investment to retrain workers for occupations with less slavery risk, as the global demand for manufactured goods falls. Falling demand may also encourage brands to consolidate and shorten their supply chains, which will reduce slavery risk long-term. Governments and industry may recognise lessons from the pandemic about the anti-slavery strengths and shortcomings of labour protections and standards for vulnerable workers, and commit to reshaping these. As we see policy shifts that embrace wage subsidies, worker protections, responsible business conduct, and increased public spending on healthcare systems, anti-slavery actors may seek to embed shifts in regulatory frameworks in order to help reduce vulnerability to slavery. A new regard for ‘low skilled’ workers may raise pressure towards improving conditions, and present new opportunities to reduce vulnerability to slavery.

In the area of anti-slavery policy at government and intergovernmental levels, states’ responses during the crisis will differ in how effectively they protected vulnerable people from the virus and from increased slavery risk, and states may identify lessons for their long-term anti-slavery response. Anti-slavery and development actors may be able to use this moment to push for a more intersectional approach to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including through recognizing connections between slavery, poverty, and health. There will be opportunities for integrating human rights principles and protections into anti-slavery policy and practice, including resilience-building. There may be ways to examine whether the socio-economic factors that explain the variation in the virus’ spread  relate to the risk factors relating to modern slavery, in order to reshape future anti-slavery work.

In the Rights Lab, we have formulated research approaches to understanding and responding to the effects of the pandemic on modern slavery and anti-slavery efforts. This agenda is a call for a coordinated, systematic and inter-disciplinary research effort that can support the design, development and adoption of new anti-slavery policies and techniques. Going forward we will cluster and answer some of these questions, and will work with other research organisations and anti-slavery stakeholders on this effort. Across this work we will be analysing shifts in social perspectives that can improve the global community’s abilities to respond to modern slavery in the long-term; and identifying new ways of working, introduced by necessity, that can be taken forward as anti-slavery innovations for a post-pandemic world.

After the virus

Read more from our researchers as we reflect on the challenges we face after the coronavirus crisis, as well as opportunities to rebuild a more resilient, fairer society.

Professor Zoe Trodd

Professor Zoe Trodd is Director of the Rights Lab and focuses her own research on strategies to end modern slavery.

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