from Women Around the World, Women and Foreign Policy Program, and Human Trafficking

COVID-19 and Modern Slavery: Challenges, Opportunities, and the Future of the Fight

This post is part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog series on human trafficking, in which CFR fellows and other leading experts assess new approaches to improve U.S. and global efforts to curb trafficking and modern slavery.
Volunteers give food to migrant workers from Myanmar who lost their jobs following the COVID-19 outbreak in Bangkok, Thailand April 23, 2020.
Volunteers give food to migrant workers from Myanmar who lost their jobs following the COVID-19 outbreak in Bangkok, Thailand April 23, 2020. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

This post is part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog series on human trafficking, in which CFR fellows and other leading experts assess new approaches to improve U.S. and global efforts to curb trafficking and modern slavery. This guest post from the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) leadership team was authored by Natalya Wallin, GFEMS Director of Strategic Partnerships and Jason Wendle, GFEMS Director of Strategy and Design.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and been exacerbated by inequality around the world, disproportionately affecting populations most vulnerable to acute poverty, exploitation, and abuse. One population at the extreme end of the global inequality spectrum are victims of modern slavery. Even before the current crisis, they faced restricted freedom of movement, isolation, and withheld wages. Many victims now face escalating threats: domestic workers face heightened risk of physical and sexual violence and there are numerous reports of bonded and migrant laborers forced to walk hundreds of kilometers to their home villages after losing their jobs.

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Human Trafficking


Immigration and Migration

Public Health Threats and Pandemics

As the economic fallout of the pandemic deepens and further exacerbates vulnerabilities, the global community should anticipate that millions more may fall into labor and sex trafficking in the aftermath of the crisis. While urgent humanitarian needs are being addressed in the short-term, the global community must also rethink social protections and evaluate supply chains to ensure ethical production and responsible global trade in the medium and long-term. It is critical that we coordinate efforts to prevent a surge of exploitation and modern slavery.

A Comprehensive Approach

The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) seeks to end human trafficking by making it economically unprofitable. Impacting 25 million people around the world, modern slavery is a crime of economic opportunity driven by a supply of vulnerable populations and demand for cheap goods, services, and sexual exploitation. Sustainably addressing this challenge requires a comprehensive approach that attacks the problem at every angle, denying traffickers profits, ensuring survivors have viable job opportunities, and driving down risks of forced labor through market-driven solutions. With this in mind, the Fund views the medium and long-term effects of COVID-19 on the modern slavery fight through the lens of the supply of vulnerable individuals, the demand that drives exploitation, and the enabling environment that allows this illicit market to function with impunity.

The Supply Side of Modern Slavery

Collapsing economic demand and the lockdown of key industries in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the supply of vulnerable populations in search of work and economic opportunity. This is exactly the type of vulnerability that traffickers seek to exploit. In the Fund’s past analyses across different geographies and sectors, lack of employment opportunities and economic shocks are repeatedly cited as key drivers behind individuals’ susceptibility to risky employment, migration, or marriage offers. Too often these offers turn out to be fraudulent, and victims are trapped in exploitative situations through force or coercion. In the aftermath of the crisis, lack of jobs and dire financial straits will likely contribute to increased forced labor and sex trafficking in at-risk communities. GFEMS anticipates a rise in false job offers and trafficking when economies begin to re-open.

Migrant labor in India is one geography and sector where the Fund expects this to be true. Prior to the pandemic, 450 million internal migrant laborers already faced severe conditions, many trapped in debt bondage through fraudulent employment contracts. Given the country’s recent lockdown to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, many of these workers lost their jobs and what little earnings they had. Facing eviction, many have had to walk hundreds of kilometers to their home villages. In a rapid survey of 3,000 migrant construction workers in India, conducted by Jan Sahas, almost 25 percent of migrants had debts they could not repay, and 60 percent of these migrants feared violence by their creditors. While the government has created welfare schemes to help these workers, many lack the basic prerequisites, such as registrations or bank accounts, for receiving these entitlements.

Similar scenarios are occurring in numerous other sectors and geographies, illustrating severe deficiencies in global social and labor protections. These insights also highlight where targeted efforts to address vulnerability, clean up supply chains, and enhance risk detection capabilities should be concentrated in the medium and long term to responsibly impact the supply side of modern slavery.

More on:

Human Trafficking


Immigration and Migration

Public Health Threats and Pandemics

The Demand Side of Modern Slavery

While the current drop in global demand might temporarily disrupt exploitative circumstances, this effect is likely short-lived and eclipsed by increased vulnerability. Within sex trafficking, for example, the demand for commercial sex has dropped due to social distancing regulations. However, there is evidence that online sexual exploitation of children is on the rise, indicating that perpetrators are adapting in response to the environment. In other sectors, like hospitality, the immediate drop in demand for formal employment positions creates a new population of individuals who are economically vulnerable and more likely to accept risky employment offers through informal channels or fall into exploitative circumstances.

In the short to medium term, there will be heavy demand side risks. Within global supply chains, there is a risk that once restrictions are lifted and economic production resumes, incentives for companies to rapidly scale up production will create the type of spike in demand that often spurs exploitation and unauthorized subcontracting to unethical producers. As the response to COVID-19 continues to evolve, this is an essential consideration for global businesses, who can take steps to evaluate their supply chain management practices and ensure mitigation of forced labor risk and human rights abuses within their operations.

The Enabling Environment

Even before the pandemic, trafficking was enabled by environments where limited enforcement of legislation or lack of resources for specialized training hindered prosecution of traffickers. As public resources shift to addressing urgent health needs, the work of government and law enforcement to stifle modern slavery will be even more difficult.

Limited public resourcing for dedicated police, prosecutors, and judges seeking to end impunity for trafficking crimes makes it more important than ever to identify creative solutions and draw in new resources to support and streamline efforts to prosecute traffickers. For example, there are significant opportunities to leverage technology, existing data, public-private partnerships, and financial sector expertise to enhance the ability of law enforcement to identify and disrupt illicit financial flows, deny profits to traffickers, eliminate impunity, and ultimately put them out of business.

Reasons for Optimism

While the short-term outlook for victims of modern slavery is grave, there are opportunities to make meaningful progress towards prevention and prevalence reduction in the medium and long-term.

First, the crisis has put a global spotlight on some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. The experiences of previously “invisible” laborers left behind by the global economy are gaining attention. This represents renewed opportunity to galvanize commitments to action from both the public and private sectors and mobilize resources for the fight.

Second, while industry collapses and consolidations may create pressure for exploitation, they may also provide a window for the private sector to re-evaluate global supply chains and rethink recruitment models with heightened emphasis on ethical labor and production, armed with a new awareness of the global risks associated with harsh labor conditions. There are well-established procurement processes that committed companies can put in place to reduce the risk of modern slavery in supply chains. Better purchasing practices among buyers, and demand management capabilities among suppliers can reduce drivers of forced labor while increasing the viability and resilience of businesses. Similarly, ethical recruitment of workers can foster safe and orderly migration and greater workplace productivity.

Looking Ahead    

GFEMS is actively assessing the short, medium, and long-term impacts of COVID-19 and developing strategic programs promoting responsible recovery from the economic effects of COVID-19. Learn More about the Fund’s COVID response effort at