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COVID-19 Has ‘Magnified’ Risks of Forced Labor and Modern Slavery: WEF

As the COVID-19 pandemic deepens across the globe, so, too, has the systemic inequality that results in forced labor and modern slavery, the World Economic Forum (WEF) warned Tuesday.

“Labor exploitation is a product and manifestation of power imbalances,” the Geneva-based business and political not-for-profit wrote. “We know that those who are marginalized, discriminated against and impoverished are at greater risk of exploitation.”

More than 40 million people are estimated to be trapped in conditions of modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriage, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency. One in four of them are children. Women and girls, who account for 99 percent of victims in the commercial sex industry and 58 percent in other sectors, are also “disproportionately affected” by forced labor.

With the coronavirus crisis worsening living situations for months to come, those same people are now at even greater risk, the WEF said. Not only do they lack access to adequate healthcare, but their already restricted movements are further hamstrung by border closures and travel disruptions. Worse, they’re susceptible to stigmatization and discrimination by nativist rhetoric and politics.

“Migrant workers may lack access to local healthcare systems, and that access may be even further hampered as spiraling demands on those systems force governments to limit who receives healthcare,” the organization said. “The surge of nativist and nationalist political rhetoric seems likely to make migrant workers easy targets for exclusion from access to services or, worse, for stigmatization as sources of infection risk.”

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Even migrant workers who wish to return home are unlikely to be able to do so safely for a long time. While countries such as Australia have proposed extensions for seasonal worker visas, such overtures are few and far between. Demand for labor—forced or otherwise—is also expected to ebb as the infection tightens its grip on markets, placing “those already at high risk of exploitation even deeper in harm’s way,” the WEF said.

“Survivors also face heightened risks, including as a result of living in government- or charity-run accommodation,” it continued. “As public health officials and social workers prioritize COVID-19 response, the level of care available for survivors is likely to deteriorate in the months ahead. This may deepen survivors’ sense of isolation and exacerbate mental health risks. Economically vulnerable survivors will increasingly struggle to locate basic resources.”

Already, anti-slavery activists in the United Kingdom are already calling for a victim support package for survivors and victims.

At the same time, risk of enslavement will surge, the WEF said. As the economic fallout from the pandemic continues to batter livelihoods, there will be an increased supply of workers vulnerable to exploitation due to poverty. The ILO estimates that COVID-19 could gut 25 million jobs and send global economies into a freefall if governments do not take adequate action.

Just last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery cautioned that growing “informalization and casualization” of the labor force—as characterized by low productivity and low-skilled jobs without stable sources of income—would heighten modern slavery risks.

“That risk has now been magnified hugely,” the WEF said. “As governments order non-essential business to close, millions of people employed in the gig economy—who for the most part are on precarious contracts, with little or low access to paid sick leave and no health insurance—are put in vulnerable situations and may turn to risky or exploitative employment.”

Employers now have even stronger incentives and “perhaps greater latitude” for exploitation, it added. Millions of garment workers in Bangladesh have been furloughed or laid off as a result of evaporating Western orders. In Thailand, vulnerable migrant workers have been targeted by manufacturers in medical supply chains in search of cheap and desperate labor. Even the United States has rounded up prisoners to produce hand sanitizer and face masks.

“It also seems foreseeable that the crisis may cause some countries, reliant on large migrant labor forces, to either curtail that reliance, or to place additional restrictions on migrant workers and limit their freedom of movement within the host country,” the WEF said. “Both factors could increase risk to modern slavery, in the first case by incentivizing bribery and corruption in allocation of places for workers, and in the second case by placing migrant workers at greater risk of exploitation by employers.”

With education all but suspended in most geographies, children are left wide open to exploitation.

“Schools all over the world are shutting down, from India to the U.S. to Iran,” the organization said. “This will cause economic stress for some parents, creating situations that may lead to child labor. And it may lead to an increase in child marriage, as well, as a strategy for household capital formation.”