Modern Slavery and the Impact of COVID-19

By: QIMA Aug 17, 2022

While many people associate slavery with the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, sadly it still exists today. Modern slavery takes many forms including human trafficking, forced labor, indentured servitude, debt bondage and child labor.

This article examines the current state of modern slavery and the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on those in servitude within the world’s supply chains.

Modern slavery – the facts

More than 40 million people worldwide are currently estimated to be enslaved, with women making up 70% of that number. Additionally, there are now more than 160 million children in child labor, with that number on the rise due to pandemic-induced poverty.

The top global contributors to modern day slavery are India, China, Pakistan, North Korea, Nigeria, Iran, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Russia, and the Philippines. In some of these nations, as much as 9% of the population may be involved in some form of modern slavery at any given time.

While the sex trade does make up a percentage of modern slavery exploitation, in fact, more than 81% of victims are involved in other industries such as construction, manufacturing, electronics, fashion, agriculture and fishing. As global supply chains have expanded to far-reaching parts of the world in search of low-price inputs and labor, vulnerable people have been put at risk, where brands have little visibility and governments have failed to enforce labor laws and uphold human rights.

What’s being done?

Thankfully consumer awareness of the issue is growing, because shoppers have real power to demand transparency and good practice from the brands they buy. NGOs such as Fairtrade, UTZ and Rainforest Alliance, and anti-slavery initiatives such as Walk Free, Free the Slaves and Made In A Free World are focusing on growing this awareness further still and educating consumers.

At a government level, legislation is gradually being implemented to directly address modern slavery and poor working conditions in supply chains. In 2015, the United Kingdom passed its Modern Slavery Act, and Australia followed suit in 2018. In 2019, the United Nations ratified a proposal from the International Labor Organization that outlines the steps to be taken to eliminate child labor by 2025, and most recently, the United States has implemented an import ban of products made with forced labor, focusing on certain high-risk sectors and provenance.

Brands are also taking up the fight against modern slavery and pre-empting inevitable government pressure. A good example of this is Unilever who, in 2018, focused attention on eliminating slavery at every level of its organization with an annual Human Rights Report and risk-based audit system.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Sadly, many of the gains made over the last decade to reduce and eliminate the many forms of modern slavery have stalled or been reversed due the wide-felt impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the manufacturing sector, this is in part because in-person factory audits stopped entirely during the initial stages of the pandemic, and because suppliers were under huge financial pressure as brand’s cancelled and postponed orders, resulting in shortcuts being taken.

Children in particular have felt the brunt of this impact. In June 2021, UNICEF released a report stating that the number of children in child labor worldwide had risen to 160 million, with millions more at risk due to the impacts of the pandemic. Due to financial hardship during the last two years of the pandemic, children around the world have been forced to take up work to support their families since schools have been closed.

However, the stark impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has also rapidly accelerated brands’ efforts to achieve supply chain visibility. As companies faced interruptions and shortages in their supply chains, they adopted new technologies that allowed them to decrease the risk of using an unethical supplier. Despite these gains, ensuring transparency and traceability beyond Tier 1 and 2 suppliers is a huge challenge.

Prioritize compliance in your supply chain

QIMA can partner with you to thoroughly audit your supply network. Our services include ethical, environmental and structural audits which verify conditions in your supplier factories and ensure they’re implementing good practice. All QIMA audit reports contain a corrective action plan so suppliers can remedy any non-compliance and focus on continuous improvement. Contact us to find out more.

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