Verité has identified a number of factors that increase workers’ vulnerability to becoming victims of human trafficking, all of which will likely worsen during and after the COVID-19 crisis, including poverty, inequality, political instability, conflict, crime/violence, and tightening of restrictions on immigration. The repercussions of the pandemic are simultaneously causing layoffs in some sectors and labor shortages in others, restricting the movement of migrant workers, and making many workplaces more hazardous. Victims of forced labor often do not have the ability to give or withdraw their consent for working under hazardous conditions, including potential exposure to COVID-19. Human traffickers and unscrupulous recruiters and employers are unlikely to take into account the wellbeing of workers or provide adequate sanitary measures, personal protective equipment (PPE), or medical care. Furthermore, there are often restrictions on the ability of trafficked workers to leave their places of work, which will only become more difficult with travel restrictions.
Certain categories of workers are especially vulnerable to human trafficking during the coronavirus pandemic, including:
Migrant workers, including guestworkers, undocumented immigrants, and internal migrants
- Migrant workers who are currently abroad may be left stranded without a source of income and/or the money needed to return to their home countries. In some cases, even those workers who do have the money may be prevented from returning home due to travel restrictions.
- Aspiring migrant workers who have already paid their recruiters to secure them jobs abroad may also be unable to travel back to their home countries due to travel restrictions, leaving them unemployed and burdened by recruitment debt.
- There have been reports of mandatory quarantine for international and even internal migrants for a period of up to two weeks, posing restrictions on their freedom of movement. In some cases, workers may find themselves in a situation of debt bondage if they are expected to cover their food and housing costs during quarantine.
- Migrant workers are often housed and work under crowded and hazardous conditions without access to adequate protective measures.
- Migrant farmworkers are at an especially high risk of human trafficking and exposure to the coronavirus. Not only do they lack access to safe housing and adequate healthcare and social services, but they are also less likely to report trafficking or seek medical services due to fear of deportation.
Workers newly employed in high-risk sectors due to layoffs and travel restrictions
- The ILO estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to eliminate about 195 million full-time jobs, creating a population of desperate, unemployed workers competing for limited employment opportunities. The addition of these people to the already large pool of partially or informally employed low-wage workers will likely drive the floor down even further for low-wage workers, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation.
- There are increasing restrictions on internal and international migration, which may create labor shortages in many essential sectors that rely on migrant workers. This is especially true in the agricultural sector, which may result in food shortages.
- Travel restrictions may lead local, desperate, laid-off workers to take hazardous jobs in sectors in which they have no experience.
- Informal labor brokerage networks may form to recruit these workers, increasing the risk of human trafficking.
- This situation can also create a contingent of “illegal” internal migrants who engage in travel in violation of regulations out of economic necessity, making them vulnerable to being denounced to authorities and thus less likely to report abuses.
Workers employed in sectors in which there are production booms
- A number of sectors are seeing increased demand for workers, including agriculture, mask and glove manufacturing, medical care, and transportation and delivery services.
- Workers in these sectors may be deceived or charged fees during the recruitment process.
- There have been reports of extensive overtime and restrictions on workers’ freedom of movement in the production of PPE.
- There have been increased orders of essential goods, such as gloves and masks, including from manufacturers with a history of forced labor.
Alongside this increased risk of human trafficking, there have been reports of decreased government enforcement of laws on human trafficking and cuts in social services for the most vulnerable populations, such as immigrants and refugees.
On the other hand, in the United States and Europe, the media and consumers have been paying greater attention to labor conditions, corporate social responsibility, and the plight of workers due to the pandemic. Additionally, there has been continued enforcement of laws restricting the import of goods produced with forced labor, such as the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act.
Many companies have already introduced safeguards for their own workforces, and while these are essential, it is also more imperative than ever that companies take additional measures to prevent human trafficking throughout their supply chains.
Strengthen their supplier codes of conduct to ensure that they cover risks related to COVID-19
- Standards should guarantee that workers are provided with healthy workplaces, including paid sick leave, PPE, sanitized workplaces and dormitories, and the ability to socially distance.
- Standards should ensure that work is always voluntary and workers are never forced to work under hazardous conditions or when ill, and do not engage in forced overtime.
- For more information on creating strong policies, see Verité’s Responsible Sourcing Tool.
Assess geographic and sector-level risk and focus on high-risk areas of the supply chain
- Companies must carry out assessments of human trafficking risk in their supply chains, both by evaluating documented risks, as well as factors that increase workers’ vulnerability to becoming victims of human trafficking at a regional and sectoral level.
- Companies should target their resources on COVID-19 “hotspots” and communicate with high-risk suppliers to understand the challenges of identifying and addressing human trafficking during the crisis.
- Companies may find information on human trafficking risks in the US Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor and the annual US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report.
- Companies can access the Responsible Sourcing Tool to analyze trafficking risk by sector and geography, and to understand and address risks.
Implement effective monitoring and grievance mechanisms
- On-the-ground monitoring is challenging in the midst of a pandemic, so companies must develop new approaches to monitoring, such as desk-based risk mapping, implementation of robust self-assessment questionnaires, and remote auditing and grievance mechanisms until travel is safer.
- Companies should utilize human resources that already exist on the ground to collect and report back information on labor conditions in factories and on farms. In the agricultural sector, companies can train field technicians and agronomists to do labor monitoring.
- Companies must take into account that workers are the true experts of their working conditions and ensure that anonymous grievance mechanisms are available via safe, remote communications channels, such as hotlines or online discussion boards through which workers can report abuses and receive and share information on risks and worker protections.
- Companies must develop measures to assist suppliers in adequately screening and monitoring labor brokers to ensure that workers are not subjected to deceptive or coercive recruitment practices.
Support suppliers and encourage good practices
- Companies should honor their existing contracts with suppliers and, when possible, extend longer-term contracts to shore up supplier stability.
- Companies should consider providing advance payments or temporary pandemic premiums to contractors to facilitate their payment of wages and provision of paid sick leave or emergency pay to workers.
- Companies should emphasize to suppliers the critical importance of safeguarding workers’ human rights during the pandemic by continuing to abide by local laws and company codes of conduct, and by being aware of workers’ heightened vulnerability as a result of the crisis.
For more information, contact Quinn Sandor Kepes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please send questions and topics for future articles related to COVID-19 in supply chains to email@example.com.
The photo included in this article is used solely to illustrate the locations and situations in which risk of forced or child labor is being discussed. The people shown in the photo(s) do not represent any specific person or group of people noted in the text.
Photo credit: Rudy Umans/shutterstock.com