As the United Nations’ goal of ending modern slavery by 2030 comes another year closer, experts are worried that the gains made against modern slavery and human trafficking risk being undone by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The International Labor Organization estimates that 40 million people are trapped in modern slavery globally, in a trade worth an estimated $150 billion a year to human traffickers.
While progress has been made since ending modern slavery was established as part of Sustainable Development Goal no. 8 in 2015, the fallout from COVID-19 has driven more people into forced labor and sexual exploitation—as well as making victims less likely to be rescued and receive support.
This week, leading academics, activists, officials, and experts identified three priorities for the anti-slavery movement in 2021.
1. The first priority identified was survivor leadership
While the anti-slavery movement often relies on survivors to share their stories and support other victims, survivors are too rarely given the opportunity to lead and influence anti-slavery efforts. Sign the My Story, My Dignity pledge and call for better representations of people’s experiences of modern slavery.
Thomson Reuters Foundation reports:
Minh Dang, head of the Survivor Alliance – a platform that provides contacts and opportunities – said survivors were well placed to help meet the basic needs of other victims who had been left jobless or fallen into poverty due to the pandemic.
“Having a strong survivor leadership in the field will contribute to establishing interventions that support people into sustainable futures,” she said, adding there was “still a misunderstanding” about meaningful survivor engagement.
2. Ensuring support for victims is also a top priority for 2021
With resources and attention diverted elsewhere due to COVID-19, trafficking has been pushed further underground and made even less visible.
Victims are even more afraid to speak out than before, with migrant workers particularly vulnerable, and experts warn that many face working longer for less pay—or falling further into debt bondage—due to the economic slowdown.
Aside from the impact of coronavirus on victim support, many experts are becoming increasingly concerned about the low number of victims granted asylum or leave to remain in countries like the U.S. and the U.K.
3. Finally, committing to protect labor rights
Concerns are growing over a rollback of labor rights in global supply chains, as companies force workers to accept worse conditions and governments use the economic fallout from COVID-19 to justify weakening labor legislation.
In 2020, violations of labor rights hit a seven-year high as more governments prevented workers from unionizing or collectively bargaining.
“Governments must resist temptations to relax labour protections as economies reopen, instead … ensuring that laws seeking to prevent exploitation are enforced,” said David Westlake, chief executive of International Justice Mission UK.
Private companies are also facing increasing pressure from campaigners and consumers to improve conditions for workers in their supply chains and ensure they are slavery-free.
“(Businesses must) acknowledge global supply chains across many sectors are tainted by modern slavery … and ensure they are not unwittingly contributing to exploitation,” said Patrick Proctor, head of programmes at global charity Hope for Justice.