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Good practice in protecting people from modern slavery during the Covid-19 pandemic

Report analysing the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic and proposing new guiding principles for future crises.

Published: 9th June 2021

This report provides a rapid global assessment of the major impacts of Covid-19 on modern slavery and identifies good practices in protecting its victims and affected workers. It also proposes guiding principle for addressing modern slavery during future crises.

The research team comprised of Prof. Tomoya Obokata and Dr Forough Ramezankhah from Keele University; and Rasha Al Saba and Samrawit Gougsa from Minority Rights Group.

This research was based on desktop analysis of emerging academic literature reports and data provided by governments, civil society organisations, trade unions, regional and international organisations, and media reports where appropriate; complemented by a series of semi-structured interviews with over 30 non-governmental stakeholders working in the areas of modern slavery and workers’ rights.

Key findings:

Impacts of Covid-19 on modern slavery

1. Disruption of anti-slavery actions

The project discovered that investigations, prosecutions and punishments of modern slavery, including labour inspections and court proceedings, have been disrupted or delayed in a number of states and territories. Protection of people who experienced modern slavery has been affected globally, with provision of face-to-face services has been largely halted, and the most vulnerable populations particularly affected.

2. Increased vulnerabilities

The pandemic has made people more vulnerable to modern slavery. Unemployment has been pushing affected workers into the informal and illegal economies, characterised by precariousness and lack of sufficient protection from governments. An increase in demand for labour in some sectors has enabled exploitation and abuse of workers. Temporary school closures have resulted in the growth of child labour, forced marriage, and online child sexual exploitation.

Good practice in protecting the victims of modern slavery and workers affected by the pandemic

1. Anti-slavery actions

Many governments have continued their law enforcement responses and protection of victims, whilst civil society organisations have been playing a crucial role in protecting victims.

2. Mitigating unemployment

Good practices in mitigating unemployment caused during the pandemic are emerging, with job retention through wage subsidies, cash transfers and other support provided to vulnerable populations.

3. Improving working and living conditions

Measures to improve working conditions have been facilitated, particularly around health and safety measures such staggered working hours, social distancing and provision of PPE, as well as financial support schemes have been provided to those who contracted the virus.

Critical analysis of emerging good practice

1. Anti-slavery actions

The project discovered that there still is scope for improvement, as the support given to individuals during the pandemic has been insufficient.

2. Support for unemployed workers

Much of economic and social assistance for unemployed workers was temporary and the level of support has been regarded as inadequate in all regions of the world.

3. Vulnerable groups particularly affected

The most affected and vulnerable populations have been excluded from support and assistance one way or another, for example by job retention schemes mainly applying to the formal sector and therefore excluding informal workers. Other reasons include lack of effective mechanisms to distribute support, and inability to register beneficiaries properly, which have made it difficult for groups such as women, young people, migrant workers, minorities or displaced persons to benefit from available support.

4. Working and living conditions

Living and working conditions have been affected, for instance, lack of access to PPE at workplaces or overcrowded accommodation for workers increasing the risk of Covid-19 infection. Many issues stem from a lack of effective legislative and other measures, including robust labour inspections or businesses not complying with official guidance.

5. Activities of civil society organisations and trade Unions

Activities of civil society organisations and trade unions have been affected globally, from difficulties in providing face-to-face services, to experiencing harassment and intimidation.

Guiding principles on actions against modern slavery in emergency situations

International human rights law, international labour law and other relevant branches of international law impose clear legal obligations on States to continue anti-slavery actions in emergency situations, using the following principles:

Principle 1: Human rights must be at the centre of actions against modern slavery in emergency situations.

Principle 2: States must continue to investigate, prosecute and punish modern slavery in emergency situations.

Principle 3: Law enforcement against modern slavery during emergency situations must be conducted in accordance with the existing human rights norms and principles.

Principle 4: Financial investigations and confiscation of criminal proceeds generated from modern slavery must be an integral part of anti-slavery responses.

Principle 5: States must continue to identify and protect the victims of modern slavery during emergency situations.

Principle 6: States must ensure that businesses and employers respect and protect human rights during emergency situations.

Principle 7: States must ensure access to justice and remedies through legislative, administrative, judicial and other means.

Principle 8: In facilitating effective protection, States should cooperate actively with civil society organisations and trade unions.

Principle 9: States should improve the working and living conditions of workers.

Principle 10: States must continue to prevent modern slavery during emergency situations.

Principle 11: International cooperation and solidarity are crucial in continuing anti-slavery actions during emergency situations.