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Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery

Policy briefing analysing evidence on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery

Published: 17th November 2021

This Modern Slavery PEC Policy Brief draws on a rapid assessment of relevant evidence to draw out the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for modern slavery, and lessons that can be learned for future crisis situations. It is based on available research, including new academic research funded by the Centre. Findings and recommendations have been tailored for UK-based policymakers and businesses.

Key findings

Scale and nature:

  • The pandemic has increased vulnerability to modern slavery worldwide as many underlying drivers have worsened.
  • Certain population groups, sectors and geographies have become more vulnerable to modern slavery during the pandemic, particularly already vulnerable groups such as children, migrant workers, women and girls.
  • Most research has had a focus on forced labour in supply chains as opposed to other forms of modern slavery.
  • Some evidence suggests that traffickers adapted their methods to the pandemic, including increased online recruitment.
  • In the UK, identification of victims appears to have been affected, with fewer adults identified, but marked increase in ‘county lines’ referrals, mostly involving UK national children.

Government and business responses:

  • Government mandated lockdowns had the most significant direct and indirect impacts for modern slavery.
  • The pandemic response limited opportunities to identify and support people affected by modern slavery across the world.
  • Business measures taken meant that workers in lower tiers of supply chains were more vulnerable to forced labour, and due diligence activities could not be undertaken.
  • There are multiple examples of promising practice in addressing modern slavery during the pandemic.


  • The economic impact of the pandemic is likely to increase vulnerability to modern slavery in the short term (e.g. the next one-three years), in particular in low- and middle-income countries.

Perspectives of people with lived experience:

  • Key concern was that lockdowns increased isolation from friends and family, leading to increased anxiety and mental health issues, exacerbating the sense of ‘limbo’ already felt while waiting for the outcome of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and immigration decisions.


  1. During crises, especially lockdowns, concerted efforts should be made to raise awareness of modern slavery, particularly among NRM First Responders.
  2. Benefits and potential risks of remote support provisions for survivors should be assessed.
  3. Robust contingency plans should be in place to enable NRM to deliver support services during emergency scenarios.
  4. Businesses should collaborate with established schemes to provide skills, training and route to employment for survivors.
  5. Businesses in scope of s54 of the Modern Slavery Act should report on how they responded to modern slavery supply chain risks in the pandemic.
  6. Businesses should take stock of supply chain vulnerability highlighted by Covid-19 and take steps to prevent and mitigate modern slavery in future crises.
  7. Current review of UK Government Modern Slavery Strategy should take account of the evidence base on the pandemic’s impact on modern slavery and links between modern slavery and wider legal and policy frameworks.
  8. In any future lockdown or emergency situation, temporary social protection and economic support should be reintroduced.
  9. The UK Government should use diplomatic levers to promote the adoption of guiding principles on addressing modern slavery in emergency situations across the world.
  10. Law enforcement and criminal justice agencies should assess remote/online mechanisms for promoting victim engagement in the criminal justice programme.

Authors: Olivia Hesketh, Owain Johnstone