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A New and Old Pandemic: COVID-19 and Modern Slavery

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A New and Old Pandemic: COVID-19 and Modern Slavery

Peter Williams, Principal Advisor on Modern Slavery, for IJM Global, highlights why more than ever before, it is vital that we prioritise the protection of the world's most vulnerable people and use what is in our hands to "choose freedom".

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here is hope that in the hindsight of the years ahead, the pandemic is seen as a catalyst that launched a new era of protection and justice for the world’s most vulnerable people.


We now see the world through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every part of daily life is somehow affected by this virus. Our priorities have become much more basic: try to avoid getting sick, and try to secure a stable income so there is food to eat and the lights stay on. The heroes we now so rightly recognise are those who sacrificially risk their own safety to administer healthcare, provide basic social protections to others and staff our supermarkets.

Consider a person trapped in bonded labour, a form of modern slavery.

Forced to work to repay a debt that never shrinks fast enough, they are trapped in servitude and slavery: dehumanised as a tool of industry, stripped of basic freedoms, toiling for another person’s profit until their bodies have nothing more to give. It’s often a medical crisis in the family that forces a vulnerable farmer to take a loan and sets off a chain of events that leads him and his family into bondage. Or it’s the simple inability to find enough work for basic survival. Frequently, a bonded labour operator preys on a person’s isolation from their home community to exploit them and hold them against their will with violence and threats of violence. These vulnerabilities—loss of income, family medical emergencies, isolation—are characteristic of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on people in poverty.

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When we lift our COVID-19 lenses to the world around us, we see the contraction of the global economy and the self-isolation of nations.

We watch as national governments try to prevent loss of life and avert economic disaster. If we look a little closer, we will see other pandemics waiting to emerge in the aftermath of COVID-19. Rising rates of domestic violence, exposure of children to online exploitation and modern-day slavery are already apparent. UN Women and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) released a global survey of survivors and frontline anti-slavery workers demonstrating the heightened vulnerability of women and girls to trafficking during Covid-19. These are concerns of human security, writ large in the pandemic and especially among those who are poor, marginalised and already vulnerable.

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Survivors of bonded labour and other forms of modern slavery, such as commercial sexual exploitation, are at risk of being re-victimised during this period of heightened vulnerability.

Small survivor-run businesses that generate crucial income have had to shut during lockdown. Daily wage workers, living each day on that day’s income, are in danger of starving if help cannot reach them in time. High-risk, exploitative income streams will become the recourse of the desperate, who will be ruthlessly taken advantage of by traffickers. Unless action is taken, rates of slavery will inevitably rise even as rates of COVID-19 infection fall.

Never in our lifetimes has it been of greater importance and urgency to strengthen the public justice institutions of low and middle-income nations—the institutions tasked with protecting people from slavery and other forms of exploitation.

Police and social services in many nations are overworked and under-resourced at the best of times. Unless they are supported by focused global efforts and coordinated civil society organisations, justice systems will inevitably fail to protect their citizens from those who seek to profit from the pandemic through trafficking and exploitation.

"Never in our lifetimes has it been of greater importance and urgency to strengthen the public justice system - the institutions tasked with protecting people from slavery and other forms of exploitation."

- Peter Williams, Principal Advisor on Modern Slavery, IJM Global.

Lawyers and court staff are figuring out ways to keep the wheels of justice rolling.

One young survivor received her compensation payment from a Kolkata court in the midst of the lockdown, and courts in the Dominican Republic are holding virtual hearings for urgent cases.

The tenacity of IJM's teams in the field is enabling freedom and rescue week after week.

In May, a rescue operation led by IJM and government partners freed 360 children, women and men from brutal bonded labour slavery in South Asia. These migrant workers had been stranded due to COVID-19 lockdowns and forced to work. Food and water had become scarce. One young woman said that they feared for their lives, others told that they were ‘thrashed mercilessly’ with clubs and sticks. Media coverage and advocacy following this rescue operation inspired authorities to ask 30 other nearby brick kilns to release all 6,750 other migrant labourers who wanted to leave - an unprecedented result and all achieved in just 48 hours. Authorities even organised buses and escorts for them to safely travel home despite the shutdown of public transport caused by lockdown.
In response to this unprecedented action, Foundation for Sustainable Development’s Executive Director Dr. Krishnan said:
“This is massive! The government is sensitive to the rights of vulnerable people and is listening to them.”

This story of rescue - one of many during lockdown - proves that a new future is possible. These are shining examples of courage, resilience and creativity in this time.

If we can increasingly find ways to support these front-line officers, resource local grass-roots organisations, strengthen survivor voice and apply technological solutions to the obstacles presented by the lockdown, then there is every hope that the exploiters, opportunists, the traffickers can be held back and restrained.

There is hope that in the hindsight of the years ahead, the pandemic is seen as a catalyst that launched a new era of protection and justice for the world’s most vulnerable people.

The question is will each of us choose freedom? Will we use what we have in our hands to make freedom the new normal?

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