AT THE end of April, Boris Johnson announced that the UK was “past the peak” of the virus. As politicians and royals alike had recovered from the disease, it felt as though the country was regaining a sense of hope.
The International Labour Organization (ILO), meanwhile, had announced a horrifying statistic: as a result of the economic crisis created by the pandemic, about 1.6 billion people, almost half the global workforce, would suffer “massive damage to their capacity to earn”. Moreover, in the first month of the crisis alone, it was estimated that informal workers around the world had experienced a 60-per-cent drop in income.
Two months on, the news has become continually bleaker. At the beginning of the lockdown, those working in the so-called “gig economy” took the initial hit. This crisis has not left formal employment unscathed, however: in recent weeks, huge employers such as HSBC, BP, and British Airways have threatened job losses. Some commentators have even gone so far as to regard the 2008 economic crisis as a “dry run” for Covid-19. Despite living in the most uncertain time seen in a generation, we can be confident that this is only the beginning of our economic worries.
Internationally, Covid-19 has created the perfect environment for situations of exploitation to flourish. At its most basic level, trafficking is about supply and demand. As the statistics from the ILO show, Covid-19 has exponentially increased the number of people laid off in both formal and informal sectors alike. This, in turn, has led to an increase in the number of people who are seen as potential targets and victims; those who, for example, are desperate for an income, despite hours and pay.
NOT only has the supply increased, but also the demand. Covid-19 has created urgent need for specific goods and services, such as medical equipment or cleaning services, where time for appropriate scrutiny of supply chains may often be lacking. Simultaneously, the pandemic has also created an environment in which the physical transportation of goods and services is difficult; travel restrictions and lockdown measures around the world have led to an increase in exploitation online. For example, in a recent report, Europol noted that during the lockdown there had been “significant increases in activity relating to child sexual abuse [online]”. In this instance, offenders are prevented from travelling physically, causing a surge in demand online.
Furthermore, the disruption of traditional ways of working owing to Covid-19 has meant that most NGOs and charities have been unable to continue as normal their support services for victims of modern slavery. In parallel, law enforcement, policing, and the justice systems have found their capacity reduced and their resourcing focused elsewhere. The National Referral Mechanism, set up by the Government to identify and support victims of trafficking in the UK, has consequently seen a drop off in referrals. Less face-to-face contact and a scramble to adjust to the lockdown measures resulted in a 14-per-cent decrease in the number of potential victims of modern slavery identified in the period from January to March, compared with the previous quarter.
The psychological effects of lockdown should also not be underestimated. As one survivor said recently, “This lockdown for survivors is not something new. . . I’ve been locked down for years.” The trauma of re-entering a situation in which movement and freedom are once again restricted cannot be understated. For those who are still in exploitative situations, the closure of borders and limits on daily life only exacerbate their situation; they become more concealed in an already hidden place.
THE enslavement and exploitation of another human being is an injustice of the darkest and most grievous kind. But I believe that there is hope. While the lockdown measures have created a fertile recruitment ground for exploiters, charities continue to work for freedom. In the past three years, the Modern Slavery Helpline has helped to identify 16,746 potential victims, who were exploited in the UK in sectors such as hospitality, construction, retail, agriculture, and cleaning services. During the pandemic, 60 per cent of the calls that the helpline received were from victims.
The Church of England’s own response to modern slavery, the Clewer Initiative (News, 20 October 2017), enables dioceses and wider church networks to raise awareness of modern slavery, identify victims, and help provide victim support and care. During the pandemic, the Clewer Initiative has accelerated work on a rural app to support employers and workers on temporary agricultural contracts. More information on this will be available soon.
I encourage you to pray for these organisations working to ensure that those most affected by the economic impact of Covid-19 need not turn to forms of illegal employment. Pray also for those who are trapped in exploitative situations, that their lockdown may not last a lifetime. And, finally, be alert to slavery right on your doorstep. It is happening in plain sight, but we often don’t see it.
The Rt Revd Vivienne Faull is the Bishop of Bristol.