Contemporary forms of slavery and responses to COVID-19

Contemporary forms of slavery and responses to COVID-19

April 30, 2020

During these uncertain and unprecedented times, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is committed to fight against contemporary forms of slavery that persist across the Commonwealth. Our thoughts remain with the most vulnerable whose circumstances are now even more hidden and made more precarious than before. Due to COVID-19 much of society has come to a standstill, yet the inhumane business of modern slavery continues. The Global Slavery Index reports that 40% of those enslaved reside in the Commonwealth, yet not nearly enough is being done to identify, assist and protect victims and survivors.

Despite lockdowns, victims of contemporary forms of slavery are still being forced to work, without physical distancing measures, putting them at risk of contracting COVID-19. Increased demand for medical and other essential stock to tackle the pandemic, such as hand sanitiser and face masks (resulting in short lead times, irregular orders and price pressures by retailers), are creating conditions leading to more forced labour, abuse of workers, or other unscrupulous labour practices. High-demand sectors are also seeing major recruitment drives; fewer labour and business supply chain checks by auditing companies means less victim identification and an increase in the risk of modern slavery. Not only does this endanger the lives of victims, this also endangers others as it enables the spread of COVID-19. 

Victims may be unwilling or unable to access healthcare for fear of deportation. Community groups and services that work towards their identification and protection are unable to continue their normal activities, leaving victims without local support. Due to cancelled flights and travel bans, survivors are left in legal limbo, unsure of when they can be repatriated, all this reminding us of how it is the most vulnerable in society who are the worst affected during a crisis.

Those on the frontline of the fight against contemporary forms of slavery are also being hit hard.  Grassroots CSO members of our international Commonwealth 8.7 Network,i and the individuals and communities they work to support, are feeling the effects of both COVID-19 and the essential emergency measures that have been imposed by governments to deal with it.

Civil society organisations and service providers are having to quickly learn to respond to issues in their new working circumstances. Due to physical distancing and the reprioritisation of public resources, these organisations and services are facing challenges in the provision of essential care and support to survivors This includes access to safe house support, skills building, outreach and frontline response.

In the midst of these challenges, we have also seen NGOs, service providers and survivors adapt in new and innovative ways to anti-slavery work during this time of COVID-19. Survivor alliances are using social media to share vital health information with those still held in modern slavery. Those offering aftercare services are quarantining in shelters with survivors for up to 90 days. Civil society organisations are working with one another to share resources, information and good practice. They are organising transport for survivors to get to hospitals and access the care they need. Businesses have been called upon to deliver online modern slavery awareness trainings to current and new workers.

The fight against contemporary forms of slavery during COVID-19 cannot be left to civil society organisations. Immediate action from governments must be taken to protect victims and survivors of contemporary forms of slavery from COVID-19. CHRI calls on governments across the Commonwealth to take the following urgent steps:

  • Government support and resources allocated to contemporary forms of slavery services and measures must continue to be prioritised during the current crisis. Reallocation of official resources to COVID-19 should not distract from actions on contemporary forms of slavery, as victims and survivors are one of the most vulnerable groups impacted by the pandemic.
  • Work closely with civil society organisations and service providers, such as those in the Commonwealth 8.7 Network, to enable them to adapt their work to COVID-19 and ensure that essential support can continue in some form. Now more than ever before is a time for working collaboratively through partnerships.
  • Ensure that law enforcement does not penalise victims of modern slavery who are forced to work despite lockdown measures, nor survivors who require access to healthcare or other essential services. Law enforcement personnel need to be sensitised to the situation and needs of victims and survivors.
  • Include survivor voices and participation in policy development, planning, implementation, and decision-making, both short-term and long-term. Survivors’ input is vital and necessary if service delivery is to be truly relevant and able to meet their needs. Survivor-advocates should be invited to contribute to public health strategies.

COVID-19 has forced Commonwealth governments to make quick, far-reaching emergency decisions impacting livelihoods and liberties, including lockdowns, restrictions on freedom of association and assembly to protect their citizens. Yet, decisions made and actions taken without thought for how they will affect the most vulnerable, such as those held in slavery, cannot fulfil this duty of protection. CHRI urges all state and non-state actors to mainstream anti-slavery and anti- human trafficking measures in their decision-making so that all may be protected.

Contact for more information:

Sneh Aurora and Hannah Bondi

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (London)


i. Founded by CHRI, the Commonwealth 8.7 Network is an international network with 60+ local civil society organisations who share a common vision to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery and human trafficking. The 8.7 Network serves as a knowledge-sharing platform for good practice and works collaboratively and through partnerships to raise awareness, build capacity, provide support to survivors, and advocate for change to laws and policies.