The effect of COVID-19 on exploitation and slavery

At the end of March, we learned that the UK police had recorded a 51% rise in modern slavery offences in the year ending March 2019. Many, such as the country’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton, are raising serious concerns that Covid-19 and the lockdown will increase certain forms of exploitation and abuse.

There are many reasons for these prescient warnings, and many vulnerable groups at risk.

Modern slavery already struggles with visibility. Many victims do not self-identify, so quantifying the true scale of the crime has always been a challenge (according to the Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation, there may be as many as 136,000 modern slavery victims in the UK).

Victims, most of whom are exploited for their labour, come from all over the world and work in a variety of sectors from construction to hospitality, catering and cleaning. The intersections of their experiences – including immigration status – already leave them marginalised and less likely to seek help. A crisis like this pandemic makes those trapped in a situation of modern slavery, lockdown and self-isolation at even greater risk of further exploitation, debt bondage, homelessness, poverty and untreated ill health.

For organisations working to support survivors, the virus has made already difficult work much harder, as lockdown has severely disrupted their ability to help keep people safe.

Frontline services for survivors are struggling to remain operational as staff try to work from home, while specialist accommodation services close their doors to new arrivals due to fears of spreading Covid-19. This has left some people at high risk of homelessness, which in turn leads to greater risk for modern slavery and exploitation.

Limits on the public’s movement mean that children are more at risk of abuse at home and online. In particular, sexual offenders are taking advantage of the fact children are spending so much time on the internet, vulnerable to online grooming and sexual exploitation.

And as economic uncertainty turns to economic necessity, traffickers are seizing the opportunity to prey on those who may be willing to accept riskier opportunities in order to feed their families. Indeed, is already seeing reports of an increase in labour exploitation as a result of Covid-19.

At the end of last month, cabinet ministers told us the UK had reached the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in this country. Now, the government has announced a roadmap to ease the lockdown and plans to eventually end the furlough programme. With caution and with optimism, Britain will soon begin to make a transition to a ‘new normal’.

But we must also stop the spread of another disease, modern slavery, taking this opportunity to move through and infect more of our communities. With that in mind, it is more important than ever to revisit and strengthen the modern slavery and safeguarding policies and practices in business and in government.

Modern slavery is a scourge – it is also a symptom of poverty. And poverty, exploitation and their impacts are all set to intensify in our post-Covid world. When we start to legislate for the future – when we shape our world after this crisis – I hope we do so in a way that centres the safety, dignity and wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of our society.