SURGES in demand for PPE and other products such as hand-sanitiser as a result of the coronavirus pandemic are likely to have led to an increase in modern slavery, researchers have said.
A paper published in the Journal of Risk Research, “Survival at the expense of the weakest: Manging modern slavery risks in supply chains during Covid-19” explores how the shock caused by Covid-19 led businesses to look beyond their usual supply chains and use new suppliers, who had not been checked for links to modern slavery and human trafficking.
This was the case not only with medical equipment, but also with household essentials such as lavatory paper, after a rise in hoarding in the early stages of the pandemic led to shortages in many countries.
The paper by academics from the universities of Sussex, Nottingham, and Kassel, in Germany, said that using new supply routes to meet rapidly changing demands had increased the risks of exploitation and slavery.
The urgent need for PPE, it says, meant that governments prioritised getting equipment rather than carrying out due diligence for modern slavery.
“The need for an urgent extension of their supplier base left buyers without the opportunity for comprehensive modern slavery risk-assessments,” the paper said.
“In their haste to respond to economic and supply chain emergencies, governments have also relaxed restrictions designed to limit the risk of modern slavery. Examples include the UK Government, who are allowing labour providers to temporarily provide workforce without the usual gangmasters licence, and the US government, who lifted an import ban on a Malaysian manufacturer of medical gloves accused of using forced labour.”
Among the industries cited in the research as being those in which the risk of modern slavery is most likely to have increased are the clothing industry and agriculture.
The agricultural sector is vulnerable, owing to movement restrictions that led to a shortage in the workforce coming from overseas, and because the lacklustre response of UK residents to an appeal to join the workforce of pickers “opened up the prospect for more slave labour, as companies become increasingly desperate not to see their produce rot in the fields”.
An estimated 40 million people live in modern slavery; G20 countries alone are estimated to import $284 billion of products made by slave labour.
The researchers called for further monitoring to see whether the global pandemic had resulted in the neglect of social and environmental concerns in the rush for financial survival, or whether it might operate as a wake-up call for more value-based practices.
One of the authors of the report, Stefan Gold, Professor of Sustainability Management at the University of Kassel, wrote: “Despite this gloomy diagnosis on working conditions and workers’ rights, this crisis could also represent a window of opportunity to rethink current supply chain designs and trade relationships.
“Studies conducted after the 2008 financial crisis have shown that strategically formulated social and environmental practices that base on long-term relationships and commitments can significantly increase organisational resilience and better prepare for exceptional states.
“Firms with proactive, value-oriented, and long-term supply-chain management prior to Covid-19 may now prove their superiority compared to arm-length, transactional, and oftentimes myopically economically incentivised approaches.”