TWN Info Service on Health Issues (Oct20/01)
2 October 2020
Third World Network

Rights: COVID-19 could push millions into modern slavery, says UN expert
Published in SUNS #9202 dated 2 October 2020

Geneva, 1 Oct (Kanaga Raja) – The social and economic consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak have been particularly detrimental to those who were already in vulnerable situations before the crisis including people trapped in slavery-like conditions and other forms of exploitation.

This is one of the main conclusions highlighted by Mr Tomoya Obokata, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, in his report presented to the UN Human Rights Council.

The Human Rights Council is holding its forty-fifth regular session from 14 September to 2 October.

“Historical levels of under-employment or unemployment, loss of livelihoods and uncertain economic perspectives are some of the complex consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic which have hit the most vulnerable hardest,” said Mr Obokata.

“Combined with weak safety nets and a dismantling of labour rights and social protection regulations in some countries, there is an acute risk that the poorest will be pushed into bonded labour, forced labour or other contemporary forms of slavery for survival, he added.

According to the report by the Special Rapporteur (A/HRC/45/8), States have been slow in fulfilling their anti- slavery obligations and honouring the global commitments made to meet target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals to end modern slavery and eradicate forced labour by 2030 and to end child labour in all its forms by 2025.

COVID-19 is likely to further stall this process and reverse the progress that has already been made, if States fail to take genuine and decisive steps to accelerate their anti-slavery efforts without further delay, it said.

According to the Special Rapporteur, the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic have already exposed the gaps in national responses to contemporary forms of slavery, causing further deterioration of the precarious situations of the victims, survivors and those at risk of being subjected to such practices. Taking no action is not an option.

The unprecedented crisis caused by COVID-19 has affected all segments of the population on a global scale, but the social and economic consequences of the outbreak have been particularly detrimental to those who were already in vulnerable situations before the crisis, said the report.

“This includes people trapped in slavery-like situations, as well as those subjected to different human rights violations, discrimination, marginalization, social and economic inequalities and limited or no social and labour protection.”

According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures adopted to contain the spread of the disease through quarantines, travel restrictions and lockdowns have had a sweeping impact on the economy.

This has resulted in the reduction of economic growth, a global recession, and historical levels of unemployment, which will likely have long-term consequences.

Labour markets have dramatically worsened and will take years to recover because the reopening of economies is likely to remain tentative, said the report.

Around 38 per cent of the global workforce are employed in manufacturing, hospitality, tourism, trade and transportation and other service sectors that are facing a collapse in demand, a sharp fall in revenue and potential bankruptcies.

The massive losses of employment and income due to the crisis will exacerbate global poverty and inequality, disproportionally hurting those with no adequate social protection coverage, especially in the poorest countries and in the poorest neighbourhoods, said the rights expert.

Globally, only 20 per cent of unemployed people are covered by unemployment benefits, which leaves at least 152 million unemployed workers without income security during the pandemic.

These make people more vulnerable to coercion into exploitative employment, particularly in informal or even illegal economies.

The World Bank estimates that the impacts of the pandemic could push up to 60 million people into extreme poverty in 2020 alone, causing the first increase in global poverty since 1998.

Globally, acute hunger could double in 2020, affecting more than 260 million people, and the rise in extreme poverty and inequality is likely to reinforce disparities, magnify social and economic tensions and generate more migration flows.

These are well-known factors which increase peoples’ vulnerability to slavery, including trafficking in persons, debt bondage, forced labour, worst forms of child labour, forced marriage and other contemporary forms of slavery, said the report.

The Special Rapporteur said he has received multiple submissions raising concerns about the worsening situation of people who were already in situations of or at risk of contemporary forms of slavery before the COVID-19 outbreak.

He noted that the socioeconomic impact of the outbreak will be much harsher for the 2 billion people in the informal economy, constituting 62 per cent of the global workforce.

Their employment relationships are more easily broken and the safety nets available to them are fewer and weaker than those available to people in the formal economy.

Informal workers have no access to paid or sick leave entitlements, and are less protected by conventional social protection mechanisms and other forms of income support.

This concerns day labourers and temporary, non-contracted and own-account workers, including those in the so- called gig economy, promoted by digital labour platforms which employ, for example, taxi drivers and delivery workers.

Based on estimates by ILO, almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers have suffered massive damage to their capacity to earn a living due to lockdown measures and/or because they work in the hardest-hit sectors.

Furthermore, it is estimated that around 70 per cent of gig workers, many of whom quit their jobs due to a lack of demand or to protect their own safety, now have no income.

“In the absence of alternative choices, informal economy workers are more likely than before the outbreak to accept abusive and exploitative employment and may become tricked into forced labour,” said the Special Rapporteur.

Those living in low-income and middle-income countries will be particularly affected, as informal employment represents 90 per cent of total employment in low-income countries and 67 per cent of total employment in middle-income countries.

Experiences from previous pandemics show that women often encounter the effects of such crises in different, more negative ways than men, said the rights expert.

They tend to be over-represented in low-paid jobs and the sectors most affected by the crisis. They include those employed in the garment industry, where large numbers from low- and middle-income countries are employed.

“In light of the massive layoffs and lack of access to social protection mechanisms, they are in an extremely vulnerable situation.”

While informal work is a greater source of employment for men, women are more often exposed to vulnerable categories of work, such as domestic work, where they face low wages, excessively long hours, risk of physical, mental and sexual abuse or restrictions on freedom of movement and other exploitation.

These risks are further amplified by COVID-19, said the Special Rapporteur.

For example, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, domestic workers are reportedly experiencing increasing pressure to comply with demands by their employers, fearing that their contracts might be terminated.

The ILO estimates that nearly three quarters of domestic workers around the world, predominantly women, are at risk of losing their jobs, with many having no access to social security or other safety nets.

In addition to bearing the brunt of massive job losses, women have been increasingly subjected to intimate partner violence and gender-based violence as a result of the lockdown measures.

“Domestic violence may also become a push factor, increasing the vulnerability of victims to trafficking in persons and sexual exploitation.”

Young people aged between 15 and 24 years old will be among the most affected by the longer-term impact of the global recession and unemployment, said the report.

More than three quarters of young workers in 2019 were in informal jobs (most notably in Africa and South Asia), which render them vulnerable to economic crises and shocks. In addition to unprecedented job losses, the crisis has disrupted their education and training.

It is estimated that between 42 and 66 million children could fall into extreme poverty, adding to the 386 million children who were already in extreme poverty in 2019.

“Temporary school closures, combined with pressure from the sudden loss of livelihoods, food shortages and breakdown of community safety nets, may result in a permanent end to education for many children and a rise in child labour, including the worst forms of child labour.”

Currently, there are 152 million children in work, 72 million of whom are in hazardous work. ILO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have warned that the crisis is expected to push millions more into child labour.

Indeed, said the rights expert, an increasing number of children are reportedly working on farms and/or selling vegetables or fruit in the streets.

Once they enter the workforce, it becomes difficult to incentivize them and their parents to return when schools reopen.

The rising number of children in street situations is yet another reflection of the pandemic, said the Special Rapporteur.

Reports from some countries indicate their increasing engagement in street begging due to loss of livelihoods, family violence or sexual exploitation. As a result, they are also at higher risk of being exposed to trafficking in persons.

The Special Rapporteur also said that he is concerned about anecdotal information from Burkina Faso, Mali, Mozambique and Niger suggesting that the combination of severe economic shocks, food shortages, school closures and deteriorating security situations creates fertile ground for the forced recruitment of children by armed groups.

“Ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic minorities are particularly vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery due to discrimination, marginalization, economic inequalities and poverty, lack of access to social protection and obstacles in accessing justice,” he added.

Although data about the impact of COVID-19 on these groups is limited at this stage, there is emerging evidence of increased risk, he said.

Concerns have also been raised about the precarious situation of indigenous peoples and people of African descent in Latin America.

The Special Rapporteur said that in Mexico, members of Afro-Mexican communities and indigenous groups were facing discrimination, marginalization and forced labour before the outbreak, and that currently, they are exposed to food shortages and further deprivation.

The socioeconomic crisis emanating from COVID-19 has also been disproportionally affecting people on the move, including migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons, he added.

Migrant workers, representing 4.7 per cent of the global labour pool (164 million workers, nearly half of whom are women) have been especially vulnerable to the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19.

The majority of them work in the informal economy, predominantly in jobs characterized by low wages and a lack of social protection.

Employers may pressure migrant workers to work despite health risks, impose longer working days, and refuse to pay their wages or cease employment without any compensation or notice.

In light of these severe social and economic impacts, more people will be compelled to seek protection and/or livelihood opportunities outside of their countries of residence, said the Special Rapporteur.

However, the stricter border regimes imposed by many States create opportunities for human smugglers and traffickers to raise the cost of facilitating irregular migration, using increasingly precarious and dangerous routes.

The vulnerability of forcibly displaced individuals and economic migrants to debt bondage and forced labour may also increase in this context, said the rights expert.

Rising unemployment, broken safety nets and a lack of access to income security and social protection will likely force more households to turn to predatory lenders for loans, accepting extremely high interest rates.

Consequently, they might be forced to work under threat of violence or other forms of coercion to pay the loans off.

Many may fall into debt bondage situations, which may trap families in an inter-generational cycle of poverty, he said.

“COVID-19 has exposed pre-existing systemic gaps in social protection and justice systems, including with regard to identification and prosecution of contemporary forms of slavery, despite commitments made by States to meet target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Many Governments are overwhelmed with responding to the crisis, which may further delay the adoption or implementation of anti-slavery measures, said the rights expert.

Furthermore, reports indicate a wider global trend where the provision of services to survivors of contemporary forms of slavery has been disrupted as a consequence of the pandemic.

At the same time, slavery-like practices have continued and the precarious situations of the victims and survivors are further compounded by health risks, deteriorating economic hardship, increasing isolation, adverse impacts on mental health, and the inability to access assistance.

In summary, although the situation is still evolving, the multi-faceted impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on contemporary forms of slavery are clear. There is an urgent need to take action to mitigate these impacts by identifying those who are in slavery situations, reaching out to those at risk and providing the survivors with access to justice and remedies, said the Special Rapporteur.

“While it is crucial to secure access to justice, protection and other remedies for the victims and survivors of contemporary forms of slavery, it is not sufficient, as relevant measures have not been designed to address the underlying problem of unemployment caused by COVID-19.”

States should therefore implement additional measures such as provision of financial assistance and incentives for businesses, as well as income support and social security benefits for unemployed workers in order to mitigate the impact of unemployment, which in its worst form includes a risk of falling prey to slavery, the rights expert concluded.