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.

Criminal Exploitation in the Context of Homelessness

Criminal Exploitation, Forced Criminality and Homelessness

Homelessness continues to be a major risk factor for individuals’ becoming victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. HTMSE previously analysed the links between homelessness, human trafficking, and modern slavery, and the critical requirement for ongoing, long term support provisions. Homelessness itself leads to an individual having an increased visibility to potential exploiters and therefore an increased vulnerability to becoming a victim of modern slavery. However, homeless individuals can have a range of complex vulnerabilities beyond their homelessness that may include mental health problems, substance addiction, and physical health problems.

Throughout 2019 there was a marked increase in awareness of homeless individuals being approached at soup kitchens, night shelters, and ‘drop-ins’ where they are deceived with promises of work and income. Specialist Modern Slavery and Homelessness organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, have stated that individuals who are homeless are being specifically targeted for exploitation, which in many cases takes the form of criminal exploitation; where the victims are forced to commit crimes. In the case of victims who are homeless, the modern slavery charity Unseen found that the criminal exploitation is most commonly in the form of forced begging, though their exploitation may also involve being forced to commit theft, deal and/or produce drugs, or a number of other criminal acts. Victims of criminal exploitation may be arrested, charged, and even prosecuted and imprisoned for the crimes they have been forced to commit before being formally identified as victims of modern slavery and/or human trafficking and receiving appropriate support. HTMSE has provided extensive training on this area throughout the UK and world.

Criminal exploitation and forced criminality has been an area that has received substantial attention recently across the counter-trafficking and anti-slavery sectors and mainstream media, most notably in the context of ‘county lines’ drug dealing operations. Increases in awareness and guidance for addressing criminal exploitation across law enforcement, legal and local authority professionals; the prevalence of modern slavery and human trafficking across various industries such as the hospitality industry, and in particular new models in the hospitality sector such as ‘AirBnB’; and the links between homelessness and modern slavery, can all be considered positive shifts towards the development of effective strategies to combat modern slavery and human trafficking across society. However, in the context of homelessness and modern slavery individuals may swiftly become trapped in cycles of exploitation. As discussed in HTMSE’s previous analysis of homelessness and modern slavery, victims of modern slavery and human trafficking are at an increased risk of becoming homeless without appropriate long term support in place, and homeless individuals have an increased vulnerability to potential exploiters.

The circularity of this issue remains a clear demonstration that a comprehensive multi-sector response is needed to effectively tackle these issues.

 

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.

Climate Change and Human Trafficking

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, has released a report warning of an impending ‘climate apartheid’. ‘Climate apartheid’ is considered to be a state of affairs that will be brought on by climate change where wealthier individuals can pay to move and avoid rising heat and hunger, leaving poorer communities behind. This issue has been described as posing a great threat to human rights and the rule of law, in particular such a state of affairs may contribute to an increase in human trafficking.

The conditions for human trafficking can be generated effectively by natural disasters. Specifically natural disasters create conditions where individuals are vulnerable, and whilst these vulnerabilities may be linked to a variety of different factors one of the most significant is homelessness (See HTMSE’s blog on Human Trafficking and Homelessness here). The International Organisation for Migration has identified a particular nexus that exists between human trafficking and climate change. In particular, the increased risk of natural disasters posed by climate change, as well as the social strain caused by climate change which can lead to conflict, poverty, and instability, tends to a more general possibility that climate change may be a major contributor to increases in human trafficking in the near future. However, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) states that the overlap between human trafficking and climate change is largely un-researched and scholarship on this topic is limited. Drawing on practitioner reports and available research the IOM describes the impact of sudden and slow onset natural disasters on the risk of human trafficking. Sudden natural disasters were identified as driving an irregular pattern of migration as individuals attempt to leave the affected zone and trafficking from refugee camps set up in response to the situation. Slow onset disasters, such as coastal erosion or repeated droughts damaging arable land, also drives the risk of human trafficking by increasing outmigration, increasing poverty, and potentially unemployment. It is these slow onset disasters in particular that may fuel a situation similar to that of ‘climate apartheid’.

Given that ‘climate apartheid’ will be generated by those with means leaving areas that are slowly rendered inhospitable by climate change it is apparent that measures are required to limit the risks of human trafficking and other human rights abuses. NGO’s have suggested that long-term recovery strategies for sudden natural disasters, such as hurricanes, should incorporate plans to address the increased risk of human trafficking. The IOM similarly advocates that with slow onset disasters long term plans for tackling the issues of climate change should also address the changes to social environments that are conducive to human trafficking. Similarly, efforts addressing human trafficking ought to also account for potential changes in the social environment that may be effected by climate change.

Overall it appears likely that the social impacts of climate change could lead to an increased risk of human trafficking and modern slavery, particularly in areas where climate change causes natural disasters. However, in both slow onset and sudden natural disasters it is possible to mitigate the increased risk of human trafficking by ensuring effective recovery and law enforcement practices are built into long term strategies.

Victims of modern slavery at risk of homelessness – Homeless at risk of becoming victims of modern slavery

Homelessness and Destitution
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Significant links can be found between modern slavery, human trafficking and homelessness. In 2017 the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner‘s Office published a report entitled ‘Understanding and Responding to Modern Slavery within the Homelessness Sector’, which followed a 2016 exploratory survey conducted in conjunction with the homelessness charity ‘The Passage‘. The main findings, which have since been re-published in The Passage’s 2018 Anti-Slavery Handbook, primarily suggested that those who are homeless and destitute are at significant risk of exploitation, and those victims of slavery are at risk of becoming homeless without proper provision of long term support strategies; accommodation has been identified as one of the most pressing provisions required for victims of modern slavery by other homelessness charities.
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The report found that:
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“… the majority of homelessness organisations (64% of survey respondents) have, to varying degrees, encountered potential cases of modern slavery…” (p.10)
   
And that whilst there is a degree of recording and there is certainly some awareness of the problem:
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 …data on the numbers of potential victims of modern slavery [within the homelessness sector] is lacking or unreliable. This is either a result of a lack of recording or of a lack of information” (p. 10)
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Aside from the issues in reporting, which were noted as needing improvement in their accuracy and reliability, there was a clear need from the report that greater co-operation was required across different agencies to comprehensively tackle the two overlapping issues. One of the current issues noted by the report is that the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) required reports to come from a designated first responder, which most homelessness charities are not. This causes unnecessary delays, as noted by the report, and clearly demonstrates the need for multi-agency responses, or reforms to the NRM so that a broader spectrum of organisations may act as first responders for a crime that can effect anyone from any background.
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Since the report there have been a variety of handbooks and advice documents produced specifically targeting the issue of homelessness and modern slavery;  from both Non Governmental and Governmental organisations, for a wide range of groups and organisations that may come across modern slavery in the homelessness sector, targeting both homelessness resulting from modern slavery or slavery resulting from homelessness.
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Given the vulnerability of homeless individuals becoming victims of modern slavery, and the risk of slavery victims becoming homeless, the importance of multi-agency responses to both issues to avoid situations where individuals undergo continual cycles of exploitation is clear.  As such, more research into the overlap between homelessness and modern slavery, both in terms of the nature and extent of the overlap and the effectiveness of responses, is greatly required.
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Links to the full report and a short summary of the findings can be found on our e-learning page here.

Traffickers Target the Vulnerable After Natural Disasters

Traffickers will take opportunities to exploit vulnerable people, and natural disasters create high-risk scenarios. Traffickers target homelessness, and hundreds of people are left homeless with their property, lives and families exposed to recruiters. Tragically, rescue centres become a common point for traffickers to target, according to survivors in the Southern USA states of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida who periodically experience hurricanes.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre “one of the largest labor trafficking cases in United States history resulted from human trafficking that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina”. The higher demand for labour in the clean up and reconstruction of the affected area led to 5 men being recruited by traffickers and eventually paid out $14 million.

The threat of crime and exploitation needs to be built into the emergency and resilience strategies of societies against natural disasters. There is an abundance of agencies and organisations prepared to assist in disaster response, who must partner with local law enforcement and civil service to create awareness around human trafficking and protect the vulnerable against exploitation post disaster.

Read further reporting on natural disasters and human trafficking here.