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Untold Shackles of the Pandemic: Unveiled.

A thorough report on the pandemic’s impression on slavery and human trafficking in the 21st century and exactly what you can do about it compiled together by Anvita Tripathi from Curious Case of COVID.


“The individual is the central, rarest, most precious capital resource of our society.”

Those were the words of the late Peter Drucker, the man whose writings laid down the golden rules in the philosophical and practical foundations of a modern business corporation. And like many discerning persons of history, he talks of sheer fact. An individual is what serves as the building block of a society. Put the block in a position where it is likely to fall, and it shall take the grandeur, that is called its society, with it.

We consider slavery to be something that took place in our collective past. In our present, slavery is abolished, banned and universally condemned. Same is the case with other disturbing activities such as human trafficking. But the elementary question we need the response to is, after all these decades of rebellion, abrogation and legislation; has society been able to ensure the extinguishing of modern slavery and human trafficking? To put it in the most straightforward manner, the answer to that query would be, a hard and simple ‘no’.

Behind the façade, this global issue persists in many corners of the world, victimizing an estimated 40.3 million people globally. It occurs today in the gulags of North Korea, on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, and in the brothels of Eastern Europe. Women and children are its primary victims and are most often enslaved in the form of bonded labor, domestic servitude, sexual exploitation, or forced marriage. Domestic servitude, which forces someone to carry out daily chores in a private household, is another form of slavery that overwhelmingly targets women and adolescent girls. Victims of domestic servitude can be trafficked across continents and lack the workplace protections to prevent mistreatment, exploitation, and sexual violence. Forced marriage is another way in which children, particularly girls, are often enslaved. Girls as young as nine can be forced into arranged unions, often the result of financial transactions or deeply ingrained cultural practices. Even in developed countries such as the United States, in 17 states, there is no minimum age requirement for child marriage. Girls account for 88 percent of the world’s victims of forced marriage, with children under the age of fifteen making up 44 percent of such marriages.

Sex trafficking and sexual exploitation can also manifest as a form of debt bondage, with traffickers claiming that individuals must work in the commercial sex industry to pay for their transportation, recruitment, or basic needs. This crime frequently accompanies conflict and instability; for example, as ISIS gained control of swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, Yazidi women and girls as young as eight were forced into sexual slavery, sold in markets, or gifted by commanders to fighters as brides.

Truth be told, this upsetting phenomenon has almost become an international business. All over the world, bargains are being drawn up and covenants are being drafted over the international trading of bonded labour in hindsight. And to add on, there has been an unparalleled but not unprecedented heightening in international modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Who’s to blame? Patently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, migrant workers were already at a heightened risk of modern slavery, due to their reliance on daily wages, irregular status in the destination country, and exclusion from the State economic and social support services. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020, migrant workers were not only vulnerable to catching the virus in their often hazardous working and living conditions but experienced an increased risk of destitution in the destination country after losing employment; detention as a result of migrants’ irregular status; indebtedness as a result of loans taken before and during the pandemic; and increased vulnerability to debt bondage and slavery.

Clearly during this period of the pandemic and international lockdown, occurrences of these cases have skyrocketed. But what are the questions that can be asked to further analyse the problem?

1. Have Covid-19 measures interrupted or accelerated modes, methods and forms of trafficking and enslavement? Are there any emergent trends?

The lockdowns that have been implemented to halt the spread of the virus have led to mass layoffs as many global brands cancelled orders and factories were required to shut down. The garment industry has been acutely affected, putting its workers at considerable risk of increased poverty. By late March 2020 over one million garment workers in Bangladesh had been laid off or temporarily suspended.

Widespread job losses, the closure of regular migration pathways, and reduced scrutiny of labour standards increase vulnerability to modern slavery. Extreme economic distress brings with it increased slavery risks as families find themselves with limited employment choices and must take considerable risks to ensure their survival. The economic and social impacts of COVID-19 will exacerbate the ‘push factors’ that lead to both increased migration and increased vulnerability to modern slavery, such as poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunities for decent work.

2. What are the immediate mental health risks to victims and survivors of modern slavery?

COVID-19 presents governments with unprecedented health, social and economic challenges, leaving very few things in society untouched. Modern slavery, human trafficking and forced labour are no exception to this. Evidence indicates that COVID-19 increases the likelihood of an individual being exploited by exacerbating the ‘push factors’ that make them vulnerable. In the UK, as we grapple with the pandemic, the ‘hostile environment’ policy is compounding the vulnerability of people trapped in modern slavery. Many are often too scared to reach out to authorities, even when they are in dire need of accessing essential support, such as healthcare. They fear being criminalised and detained, rather than being protected as a victim of crime. People in slavery are often forced to live in squalid, overcrowded conditions, with many in a room and without access to good washing facilities. The risk that someone with symptoms of coronavirus trapped in modern slavery avoids seeking medical help is a mortal threat to the wider community.

3. What are the immediate unintended consequences of containment responses for those enslaved away from home?

Globally, lockdowns have affected demand for casual and temporary labour in various industries, such as apparel, retail, and hospitality, leaving workers without income. Many migrant workers are unable to return to their home countries due to border closures and lack of affordable transport. Vulnerable migrant workers generally do not have savings or access to social security protections in destination countries. Many workers have been left with limited access to food, accommodation and health care, which poses significant health and humanitarian risks and increases their vulnerability to modern slavery. In April, The Guardian published an article discussing the plight of migrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The article reported that overseas labour migrants in GCC countries were crammed into work camps, stood down from their jobs due to lockdowns, facing high rates of infection, and with no way home. The various workers had been mostly confined to dormitories.

4. Talking about NGOs and anti-slavery communities, what have been the issues that they have faced during the pandemic?

In former slave communities, the schools Anti-Slavery International set up and support are now closed, as part of a nationwide shut down. They usually act as community hubs and provide education and meals to the children of former slaves. Without this service, most families would struggle to feed their children and would have no other choice but to move to urban centres in search of employment or go back to slavery. Anti-Slavery International and our local partners are adapting to the situation by providing information, emergency food rations and hygiene materials to the poorest communities – prioritising families that have children enrolled in our community schools.

5. What can the administration and legislators across the world do about the crisis?

Governments can mitigate the heightened risks of exploitation to migrants by extending temporary work visas or granting them amnesty, and ensuring they have access to healthcare and sanitary working and living conditions. To prevent citizens from being stranded abroad, governments can also ensure borders are open to returning citizens and engage with governments in destination countries to facilitate return.

It is important that all stakeholders, including government agencies, NGOs and parliamentarians, work together to ensure that victims continue to be able to access frontline support in a way that complies with COVID-19 protection measures.

But how do we distinguish the shrouded cases of modern-day slavery and human trafficking from the rest of the community we live in? Ishaan Shah, the founder of Stolen Dreams, an organisation centred around helping the important causes of our time, joined us earlier this year to piece together the different aspects of this crisis. He advocates that the seven rudimentary things to look out for are: the victim’s physical appearance, isolation, relationships, living conditions, unusual travel times, reluctance to seek help and restricted movement. Any anomalies found in these seven facets may imply that the victim in question is in need of immediate help. And as far as providing help goes, there are five basic things that need to be kept in mind:

  • Educate yourself and spread the word: Understand and let others know that we, as a society, are encountering slavery everyday in the little thing in our lives like the food we eat, the clothes we wear and so much more.

  • Write to your local government: Urge the local politicians to impose an efficient strategy and plan of action to prevent salvery through actions like public awareness and providing the survivors with the best rehabilitation support possible.

  • Stay safe online: Due to the pandemic, traffickers have switched to platforms like social media to exploit users. Make use of the resources available to understand the signs of an online predator and talk to people that you are familiar to.

  • Consume consciously: With international brands looking for cheaper labour, there is a good chance that a lot of the products that we consume on a daily basis are what fuel unfortunate phenomenons like slavery. If we consume consciously, we can reduce the demand for the products coming from these brands and also start being vocal about these problems through these little boycotts.

  • Support organisations: Donate to NGOs working to help stop slavery, lobby businesses and governments to take action, spread awareness and provide rehabilitation to survivors. You can start a fundraiser or sponsored event in order to raise capital.

Returning to the initial thought, the fact remains that the individual remains to be the central, rarest, most precious capital resource of our society. But what if the individual is caged, bonded and in thrall of some other force? Will it be able to contribute to the desired build called society to its full capacity? If this building block is hampered with, how can the grand structure it’s supposed to compose stand stall and complete? After all, a block of its own self is amiss.

Our communities claim progress and success. Truth be told, For our communities to truly flourish, it is crucial that every man, woman and child moves along with that same progress, hand in hand. As components of a singular whole, we need to act as a whole. It is time every one of us is liberated from the plague called slavery. It is time that we march on to a better tomorrow, for all of us.

Written by Anvita Tripathi

Illustrated by Patricia M.


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