The Continuing Impact of Coronavirus on Human Rights and Modern Slavery

The continuing coronavirus pandemic poses risks to members of society beyond the immediate virus itself. Since governments around the world began introducing new legislation and lockdown procedures to enforce social distancing measures many organisations have highlighted the need to maintain protections for basic human rights, and ensure appropriate safeguards are in place for the some of the most vulnerable in society, such as victims of human trafficking and modern slavery; victims of domestic violence; children at risk of exploitation; and serving prisoners for whom an inability to socially distance may have severe consequences.

Domestically, NGOs and academics have warned many victims of modern slavery and forced labour trapped in exploitative situations will be unable to seek medical assistance or stop working, and many may further actively avoid seeking help for fear of contact with the authorities. Whilst some positive measures have been put in place to aid those impacted by coronavirus and lockdown measures domestically, such as the UK Government’s measures allowing victims of modern slavery to remain in government funded safe-house accommodation for three months, significant concerns continue to be raised for workers in international supply chains. Reductions in international trade have caused thousands of workers to have been left jobless, or facing joblessness, leaving them potentially vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery. In Cambodia, over 20,000 workers in the garment industry alone faced job losses due to factory closures resulting from a reduction in trade with China, the US and Europe. Similar reports have emerged from other countries, impacting workers across all industries. However, the risks extend beyond becoming trapped in exploitative employment. Loss of income has led some workers and families having to resort to seeking high interest loans in order to survive, leading to many becoming victims of debt bondage; being forced to work to pay off the debt. This has become a particular concern for millions of informal workers in countries such as India, where many workers do not have bank accounts or official paperwork causing difficulties in accessing Government aid.

In addition to concerns for workers across the world becoming extremely vulnerable to modern slavery, forced labour, and other forms of exploitation as a result of losing their job and income, there are substantial concerns for those working in supply chains for high demand items. In particular, manufacturers of personal protective equipment used in medical services, such as rubber gloves, have come under scrutiny for their labour practices; with the conditions of migrant workers in rubber glove factories in Malaysia being described as ‘slave like’. With demand for these items continually rising, human rights organisations have implored governments not to ignore labour conditions and exploitation occurring across global supply chains in their production.

These impacts of the global pandemic may have profound effects beyond the individuals forced into exploitative situations, causing substantial delays in the progress of programmes to improve human rights globally. The UNFPA has conducted an analysis that suggests the economic impact of coronavirus, in conjunction with delays to programmes tackling issues such as FGM and child marriage, could lead to an estimated 13 million child marriages in the next decade, and an additional 2 million cases of FGM above what was previously predicted.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the risks and vulnerability for many in society and will continue to do so for many years after the initial pandemic itself has ended. In addition to those trapped in violent, abusive, and exploitative situations at home, for many around the world the economic impacts of coronavirus have raised their vulnerability to potentially becoming trapped in bonded labour, forced labour or other forms of modern slavery. The raised demand for certain products, alongside an increased demand for work, has also exposed may factory workers potentially exploitative working conditions, and the impact on global programmes focusing on human rights have been delayed; potentially resulting in millions of additional cases in the coming years. It is vital to ensure that in tackling the global public health crisis much of the positive development in addressing human rights around the world is not undone, and Governments and private sector actors continue to address and improve the situations of society’s most vulnerable individuals.

Doorstep Scams, Rogue Traders, Travelling Sales and Modern Slavery

Human Trafficking and Doorstep Scams

Door to door scams and rogue traders have been points of focus recently for their links with modern slavery and human trafficking. However, the links between door to door scams and modern slavery and human trafficking are not new issues. In July 2015 the Polaris Project published a report entitled ‘knocking at your door: Labor Trafficking on Sales Crews‘, exploring the major issues of modern slavery, human trafficking and forced labour in the travelling sales industry. The Polaris Project’s report focused specifically on the US context, but awareness of door to door scams and rogue trader’s links with modern slavery and human trafficking has risen in the United Kingdom too.

 

What are Door to Door Scams and Rogue Traders?

The Neighbour Hood Watch provide a general overview of doorstep scams, including who is likely to be targeted by doorstep scammers and what sort of scams might be involved. They identify typical doorstep scams involving ‘home improvements’, where an individual will knock on the door of their victim, without warning, and explain that their home is in need of improvement works, such as gardening, re-wiring, re-roofing etc, and that this work is extremely urgent. However, more recent incarnations of these traditional scams include installing solar panels, exploitation of internet connections, and the creation of false technical service provider adverts on search engines. Aside from these typical doorstep scams, the Neighbourhood Watch also links apparent doorstep sales pitches with distraction burglary and identity theft.

 

Links to Modern Slavery

Door to door scams of the kind noted above are being increasingly identified as being undertaken by victims of modern slavery. Criminal gangs will target vulnerable individuals who are held by the gang and forced to work for little or no pay, with one reported instance stating that a victim had been forced to work long hours 7 days a week for food and tobacco.  These patterns broadly mirror the findings of the Polaris Project’s 2015 report, which found vulnerable young people in need of employment would be offered the chance to work for a travelling sales company. Once in the ’employ’ of the company the victim would be moved around the country, often under threat of violence and/or abandonment, and forced to work for no wages.

Debt bondage can be a common feature of modern slavery and human trafficking involving doorstep sales, scams and rogue traders. Vulnerable victims are initially offered shelter, food, support, and transport, which gets tallied against them as a debt. Continued reliance on the traffickers for these provisions adds to the debt, as well as failures to meet randomly assigned sales quotas.

The noted increase in victims of modern slavery being used to carry out door to door sales and scams has led to authorities calling for greater vigilance from consumers, both to be careful of new incarnations of old scams, but also of who is the individual apparently carrying them out.

The Rise of Technological Responses to Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery

Technology and Human Trafficking

Technology, and in particular mobile applications, is being increasingly identified as an important method of tackling modern slavery and human trafficking. Mobile applications have recently been responsible for the identification of nearly 1000 cases of modern slavery in car washes around the country. With the release of the Modern Slavery Helpline annual report for 2018, which recorded approximately 1 in 7 reports were made by webform submissions or through the Unseen App, it is clear that there is a rising awareness of modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK and a significant proportion of reports are made through technological methods.

However, mobile applications are not the only technologies being identified and implemented to help tackle modern slavery and human trafficking. So far in 2019 there have been several reports of new implementations of technology to combat modern slavery and human trafficking. For example, satellite imaging being recently used in a study by Nottingham University to accurately map the number of brick kilns in India. Brick kilns in India, which are associated with the exploitation of labourers through forced labour and debt bondage, exhibit unique features that can be mapped by satellite imaging and it is hoped that other industries associated with modern slavery may be vulnerable to satellite imaging too; scaling this use of technology into a major method of tackling modern slavery in remote areas. By contrast, algorithms that measure activity against a set of variables have been piloted by banks in the Netherlands to identify unusual behaviour that may be indicative of human trafficking or modern slavery.

However, whilst the use of technology to combat human trafficking and modern slavery is advancing in new directions and receiving high profile acclaim concerns have been raised that technology merely constitutes a tool and its use alone may not be enough. TechUK, an organisation responsible for representing approximately 900 companies that develop technology, has raised concerns that for technological tools to be truly effective corporations need to ensure they have a strong anti-slavery culture with a willingness to act. Whilst strong corporate and social anti-slavery cultures are vital, the development of technological tools and processes to target human trafficking and modern slavery demonstrate positive commitments by a wide range of actors to tackling these issues. Many of these technological developments are recognised as new and as these tools are refined it is quite possible that technology will take play a greater role in combating human trafficking and modern slavery.

From stadium construction to the games themselves: human trafficking and modern slavery is prevalent in the sporting sector

 

Sport can provide the context for human trafficking

When the words ‘sport’ and ‘human trafficking’ are put together it immediately conjures images of the use of forced labour to construct stadiums or work as hospitality staff at events, or even trafficked sex workers being exploited by organised criminals to make an income on the vast number of people gathering in a particular area. However, human trafficking can be found in other areas of sport also; trafficking of athletes.

Media reports often discuss the issue of trafficking athletes with respect to young boys being trafficked from Africa with the promise of a successful football career. Reports from 2018 placed the value of European football at over 20 billion Euros, with English teams accounting for almost a quarter of this, making it an incredibly alluring industry for those in poverty elsewhere in the world. The victims are often forced to pay a large sum up front before being transported to another country. The end countries are often far away from the major European stadiums that were promised, the destinations often including countries such as Nepal for the ease of acquiring visas. Whilst these issues are often discussed in relation to the football industry, it is in no way limited to football, and can be found in track and field sports, hockey, and camel racing in the Middle East.

A useful distinction when discussing athlete trafficking, and in particular trafficking in the football industry, is the difference between trafficking in football/sport and trafficking through football/sport. This distinction was introduced by Poli (2010, Cited by Esson and Drywood) as follows:

  1. Trafficking in football/sport: The individual is moved to the a destination country where they have their money and documents confiscated and controlled. They may be forced to sign an exploitative contract which is then further used to control them.
  2. Trafficking through football/sport: The individual is drawn into paying for transport to a foreign country with the allure of a promising career, though upon arrival they are abandoned.

Generally, most of the recent media cases related to athlete trafficking fit within one of these two distinctions. Whether there is an exploitative contract at the destination or not. However, some criticism of the second category, trafficking through sport, has arisen as to whether the abandonment in the destination country constitutes exploitation for the purposes of the UN definition of human trafficking.

Outside of the illegal exploitation of vulnerable young people from economically deprived backgrounds there have been criticisms of legitimate bodies acting either just outside, or within the deliberately ‘grey’ area of, the rules. These concerns particularly arise over the international transfer of young people between sporting clubs, which under the right conditions could amount to human trafficking, and there have been several high profile cases involving the ‘sale’ of children in a sporting context for the purpose of sexual exploitation. However, the market demands of these usual industry practices has raised concerns that they may operate contrary to the best interests of the children involved more generally. In the context of football, despite the introduction of regulations targeting the international transfer of child players to limit potential cases of trafficking, there have been continued instances of international transfers of children. International transfers, though not always constituting human trafficking, can treat children as commercial commodities. Consequently, these practices are not in the children’s best interests or welfare, especially when considered in respect of the UN Convention of the Rights of a Child. Since these practices are more likely to occur within major legitimate corporate structures, and possibly even within a regulatory framework, isolating instances of human trafficking may be much harder than the cases involving debt bondage and agreements made on false promises

With trafficking of athletes increasingly in the spotlight there has been some criticism of the labour practices involving young athletes taking college sporting scholarships. College sports scholarships have in some ways been likened to modern slavery practices, with athletes being paid what amounts to a very low hourly rate for many hours of their time training and competing. Furthermore, the necessity of their scholarship to their future—many of these athletes coming from more deprived backgrounds— and strict requirements of amateurism can lead to excessive measures of control by scholarship funders and little opportunity for the players to leave their contracts. However, it is unclear from current reporting on the issue whether the exact conditions college sports scholars are under constitute coercion sufficient to amount to modern slavery.

Overall, it is clear that there are many different ways in which human trafficking can manifest in the context of sport. Though there has been no discussion of the links between forced labour, construction, and major sporting events, or the links between sporting events and sexual exploitation, these are important issues to account for. When forced labour and sexual exploitation are also included it is clear that the sporting sector is one at high risk of human trafficking and modern slavery. The conditions for human trafficking can occur under the traditional ‘push and pull’ of economic deprivation and a ‘way out’ and appear congruent with traditional concepts of human trafficking. But human trafficking in sport can also occur within the legitimate structures of sports player transfers, particularly transfers of children, without proper safeguards for their welfare and best interests.

The Rise in Trafficking of African Footballer Players

There are 12 current FIFA investigations into false identification documents for young African football players trafficked to Europe
There are 12 current FIFA investigations into false identification documents for young African football players trafficked to Europe

The exploitation of aspiring young African footballer players is being analysed as a rising channel of human trafficking. Boys on the West Coast of Africa, along with their families living in various degrees of poverty, are sold into a form of ‘debt ​bondage​’ through the dream of playing for a European league, in which their fortunes would be immense. With premier European football transfers reaching 200 million Euros, the attaining a cut of this fee is being seen as a lucrative business opportunity.  Following recent African football heroes such as Stephen Appiah, now a multimillionaire who began as an academy player of Ghana, there scouts from European clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco looking for talented players within the developing world. Although aiming to provide opportunity for talented players, the chances of selection for the majority remain disproportionately slim as the selection process is based on a system of privilege and club prejudice. However, aspiration to these African football idols is used by local football ‘agents’ as a ‘realistic opportunity’ to leverage poor African families to spend their life savings and limited resources to pay agents from football academies around $3,000 per player to promise passage to Europe and signing by a big club

In attempted replica of the few legitimate academies that successful African footballers used, a number of illegitimate clubs or unlicensed ‘academies’ have begun to develop mostly in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Often, the agents themselves claim to be ex-pro players, yet have false resumes and limited knowledge of the game or the professional football selection process. In many cases they present binding contracts where agents are guaranteed a majority cut of their potential success, as well as require payment for all intermediate consultation and logistic services. Such fees are extortionate ​in relation to the families’ financial situation, where houses, family heirlooms, jewellery is often resorted to as payment. Furthermore, because of the devotion to this opportunity, boys are pulled out of education or any other form of skill development, which narrows their chance of economic prosperity in any other field.

The reality is that in many cases for these boys to get to Europe, they would have to be trafficked or smuggled by the agents via extremely dangerous routes, using illegal identification documentation obtained through domestic corruption. On arrival in Europe, given the illegitimacy of the clubs they come from, the chances of the players getting a professional trial are very slim. In some cases, they are provided with this opportunity, however as reported by Italian authorities, the fake documentation they have will jeopardise the opportunity for their selection – as seen by the current 12 investigations into FIFA rule violations for this purpose. Furthermore, if they do not succeed in their tr​ial ​or become injured, the young boys are commonly abandoned or refuse to return home because of the shame to their families. This form of trafficking is a growing epidemic as the footballers are left homeless, poor and resorting to street trading or petty crime. The agents are exploiting  families by selling them false hope, because despite the world-class skill and potential of the players, the probability of their success through these illegitimate channels is highly unlikely.