The Covid Pandemic Increased Vulnerability to Forced Labor in Global Supply Chains

Comprehensive evidence points to increased vulnerability of workers to forced labor in global supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic, an analysis published today by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) has found.

The Centre, which was created to enhance understanding of modern slavery and transform the effectiveness of law and policies designed to address it, is funded by the Arts and Humanities Council.

The Modern Slavery PEC has carried out an analysis of evidence, including new academic research funded by the Centre, on the impact of Covid-19 on modern slavery across the world.

The analysis has found that the pandemic has increased vulnerability to modern slavery all over the world, including in the UK, as many of the underlying wider factors underpinning modern slavery have worsened, such as poverty, inequality and unemployment. Construction, manufacturing, including ready-made garment production, as well as accommodation and food services have been the sectors most affected by the pandemic.

It found that the increased vulnerability of workers to forced labor is often linked to long and complex supply chains, of which businesses have limited visibility. Already vulnerable groups, such as migrant and informal workers, were most affected, particularly in the lower tiers of supply chains.

There is evidence of an increase in the risk of forced labor both in supply chains that experienced a significant reduction in demand, such as garments, and those that experienced demand spikes, such as PPE production.

The problems were compounded by businesses struggling with the immediate impact of the pandemic making it difficult to mitigate the modern slavery risks in their supply chains, including by making it very challenging to carry out due diligence processes on suppliers on the ground.

Additionally, some of the early response by business to the pandemic exacerbated vulnerability to modern slavery, for example by cancelling contracts and withholding payment for goods already produced.

Modern Slavery PEC Partnership Manager Owain Johnstone, one of the authors of the analysis, said:

“Covid-related supply chain disruption is a wake-up call for businesses. The evidence that the pandemic has worsened people’s vulnerability to forced labor in global supply chains is overwhelming.”

“The pandemic has highlighted the complexity and fragility of many supply chains and reinforced the link between the lack of visibility over supply chains and the vulnerability of workers to modern slavery. More transparent, resilient supply chains are better for business and better for workers”, he added.

Dr Jo Meehan, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Purchasing at University of Liverpool Management School, who led the Modern Slavery PEC project on the impact of Covid-19 on the management of supply chains, said:

“Demand volatility has been extremely high during the pandemic. It acts as a driver of modern slavery as it erodes profits, encourages the use of temporary and precarious workers, and destabilises capacity in supply markets.”

However, the Modern Slavery PEC’s analysis has also pointed out that the pandemic may lead to longer-term positive changes to supply chain dynamics. This includes greater visibility and awareness of supply chains that Covid has forced on businesses and increased awareness of exploitation affecting supply chains.

Dr Meehan said: “Our study revealed that because of the pandemic, two-thirds of businesses sourced from new suppliers and undertook additional supply chain mapping. Therefore, there is an opportunity for businesses to use these new relationships as springboards to understand the impacts of their own business model and practices, and how they may change to collectively tackle, and prevent, modern slavery.”

For example, evidence suggests that some businesses have already moved towards the ‘localisation’ of their supply chains, working to shorten them and bring suppliers closer to home to avoid future disruption, which is likely to decrease modern slavery risks. Another example includes extending inventory planning cycles to take their longer-term demand into account and enable better workforce planning.

Johnstone said: “It’s clear that the crisis has pushed businesses to strengthen their hold on their entire supply chains, which can make it easier to address any exploitation issues potentially affecting them.

“We urge businesses to use the pandemic experience as a platform to increase visibility and transparency over their supply chains, as well as improving collaboration with their suppliers and peer companies.”

Modern Day Slavery in the UK

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Oscar-winning picture of the year 12 Years a Slave by accomplished British Director Steve McQueen attempts to tell how the brutal enforced capture of human beings was something that society at the time did not quickly recognise as wrong. However some of the critics of 12 Years a Slave have a negative view of the re-telling of a period in history which views people in this negative way.

But in reality slavery has not gone away and so this film is not a re-telling but a snap shot in time about something being reported currently as affecting many people. The autobiography of Solomon Northup represented in 12 Years a Slave; a person kidnapped and sold into slavery is an experience some people  are unfortunately experiencing currently. Today is better known as “trafficking” but the details of the terrifying actions and enforcement tell us that it is Modern Slavery.

The media may only recently be bringing the issue to light, but ‘Modern Slavery’ or ‘Trafficking’ has been a steady and significant issue in the UK for many decades.  It is seen as a serious crime in the UK, with new legislation being developed now in order to tackle it. With Social Work supposedly at the front line of this issue, how is it that Modern Slavery information and guidance is not provided, not mentioned and not prepared for across the board for social workers?

Adults and Children are trafficked into the UK on a daily basis and for many different reasons. They may be brought here from overseas for sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude or even to be a criminal- forced to engage in benefit fraud, etc. Many adults and children already live in the UK and are taken from their towns and cities to work elsewhere- in the UK and the rest of the world. This serious problem is a reality for so many, however even those lucky enough to escape their captors face further troubles from the Police or Border Agencies.

Those who contact the authorities for help are often arrested for being Illegal Immigrants, treated like criminals and not offered support and advice on what has happened to them. The brain-washing and disorientation of Modern Slavery means many people find it difficult both physically and psychologically to leave their captors, and even more difficult to understand that they are a victim.

The problems lie in the lack of information and awareness provided not only to the public, but to the agencies who deal with immigration and trafficking, especially those in Social Work. The shocking truth is that no Modern Slavery appears in any Social Work curriculum before graduation, and no training is provided thereafter. How we can be expected to tackle these issues with no information as a simple answer- we cannot.

Social Workers need training to be able to identify the signs of abuse and should be provided with more in-depth training to tackle Modern Slavery when they encounter it. The ‘Widespread Ignorance’ of the National Referral Mechanism must be acknowledged and changed. The Mechanism is the National Framework for ‘identifying victims of trafficking and providing appropriate support.’

Current recommendations from the reports released suggest that additional training must be provided to all involved, including social workers, border agencies and police. Modern Slavery must be added to the curriculum of study for all graduates of Social Work and also that a Modern Slavery Act needs to be established to abolish the mistreatment of those who have suffered and protect them from prosecution if they have been brought into this country by force. Read The Draft Modern Slavery Bill  published in the UK on 16th December 2013

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