There are 40.3 million people estimated to be in modern slavery. How will COVID-19 impact efforts to end modern slavery, forced labour, human trafficking and child labour, as countries committed to in SDG Target 8.7?
In at least three ways: 1) heightening risks for those already exploited; 2) increasing the risks of exploitation, including child labour and child marriage; and 3) disrupting response efforts.
1. Risks for those already in situations of labour exploitation and for survivors
Labour exploitation is a product and manifestation of power imbalances. We know that those who are marginalized, discriminated against and impoverished are at greater risk of exploitation. Those people are now at even greater risk, as they are vulnerable to exclusion from adequate healthcare, have their already-constrained movement restricted further by border closures and travel disruptions, and risk stigmatization and discrimination by nativist rhetoric and politics.
In the Gulf, for example, there is serious concern about the risks of infection for migrant workers accommodated in densely packed, often poorly sanitized labour camps. Migrant workers may lack access to local healthcare systems, and that access may be even further hampered as spiralling demands on those systems force governments to limit who receives healthcare. The surge of nativist and nationalist political rhetoric seems likely to make migrant workers easy targets for exclusion from access to services or, worse, for stigmatization as sources of infection risk.
Yet where migrant workers wish to return home, they are unlikely to be able to do so safely for some time. This will place those already at high risk of exploitation even deeper in harm’s way. There are exceptions, though, where governments are taking steps to relieve pressures, such as Australia’s proposed extension of seasonal worker visas.
Survivors also face heightened risks, including as a result of living in government- or charity-run accommodation. As public health officials and social workers prioritize COVID-19 response, the level of care available for survivors is likely to deteriorate in the months ahead. This may deepen survivors’ sense of isolation and exacerbate mental health risks. Economically vulnerable survivors will increasingly struggle to locate basic resources. Anti-slavery activists in the UK are already calling for a victim support package for survivors and victims.
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