The Impact of COVID-19 on Modern Slavery

By Sarah Morse

I read an article this week, about a migrant worker in India who lost her job in the city. She is one of many people who come from rural areas for seasonal work in the big cities. A country in lockdown means no work, no money for food, no way of paying her rent, and transport home either not working or too costly. This lady had no other choice but to join the thousands of people walking back to their home states. In her case, she was walking 1200km in sandals, with her toddler on her hip, pulling a suitcase behind her.

As a mother of a toddler, I see myself in this brave mother. Every time I hoist my little girl onto my hip, I think of that mother in India. In this story, I see the tenacity, the will, the courage, and the strength of this community at the end of our supply chains, which provides us with the goods and services we take for granted. If nothing else, Covid-19 has shown us how interdependent we are on each other in our supply chains.

According to Unseen UK, “slavery is the commodification of people for the purpose of exploitation and financial gain.” The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) estimate before COVID-19, was that approximately 46 million people are living in modern slavery in the world today. 60% of those in forced labour, and two-thirds of those living in the Asia-Pacific region. As Australians, we have inadvertently been benefitting from Modern Slavery for many years in our supply chains and operations.

For many millions of people like the mother of this toddler, the impact of COVID-19 is catastrophic. From the closing of the retail sector and associated cancelling of orders and disruption of supply chains, to the lowering of compliance standards of many companies during the crisis, we see the world’s vulnerable and poor becoming more so. Half a billion people have been pushed into poverty, 265 million people in acute hunger, and 10 million workers to lose most income. Free workers are now becoming bonded by debt to their employers to help pay their bills during lockdown. In some industries, such as the manufacturing of PPE, factory workers are faced with increasing human rights abuses.

While isolation has been difficult here in Australia, for those who are unable to isolate in crowded living conditions, the challenges are much more significant. With no running water to wash hands or money to buy hand sanitiser or face masks, there is an increased risk of COVID-19 spreading through densely populated areas of the world’s poor.

Having worked with survivors of human trafficking, I know that human traffickers are heartless, agile and quick to diversify. During a crisis, they are often the first on the ground, exploiting those who are desperate. Additionally, law enforcement in many countries has been impacted, with anti-trafficking taskforces being redeployed for enforcing restrictions, leaving human trafficking largely unmonitored in many countries.

According to a recent ILO report, an estimated 1.25 billion workers, representing almost 38% of the global workforce, are employed in sectors that are now facing a severe decline in output and a high risk of workforce displacement. Key areas include retail trade, accommodation, hospitality, food services and manufacturing. Particularly in low and middle-income countries, hard-hit sectors have a high proportion of workers in informal employment and workers with limited access to health services and social protection. Workers face a high risk of falling into poverty and will experience greater challenges in regaining their livelihoods during the recovery period.

However, the impact of COVID-19 is lost if we don’t also see it as an opportunity for Australian companies to make a positive global impact. We can maintain our corporate values, and recognise, own and act on our share of responsibility when it comes to supply chain integrity. This is an opportunity to reduce complexity in supply chains, and increase our ethical practices, while at the same time safeguarding workers, partners and distribution channels. While consumer behaviour patterns are changing, an opportunity exists to understand, empathise and rebuild relationships with customers and stakeholders and increase trust and transparency in supply chains. 

During the recovery phase, an opportunity exists to integrate sustainability into our business recovery strategy and make sustainability at the centre of decision making, while also building flexibility and resilience into our supply chains. Through the chaos, there is an opportunity to realign and reorder things more productively and positively. The actions we take in the weeks and months to come will become the true impact of COVID-19 on Modern Slavery. Working together, we can seize the opportunity and build a more robust and healthier global community. What is the world we want to create?


Sarah Morse, Unchained


Sarah Morse is the Director of Unchained Business Services. A Prological business partner, Unchained inspires Australian businesses to be leaders in addressing modern slavery. Contact Unchained at www.unchained.net.au for more information on conducting a Gaps Analysis on modern slavery in your supply chains, and how your company can comply with the Modern Slavery Act.




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