Modern slavery is growing because of Covid-19. But it’s not just a developing world problem – it’s also here. KARINE WOLDHUIS* writes.

COVID has had a devastating impact all around the world. While Australia moves into the next phase of easing restrictions, the crisis continues to unfold across the Majority World.

As the months roll by the multiple dimensions of this crisis and the profound suffering it is causing is starting to become clearer.

We know COVID as the global public health crisis it is. Efforts to save lives and flatten the curve led to 81% of the global economy being shut down over the last few months[1]. While this has saved many lives, it has also resulted in a global economic crisis on a scale we have not seen since World War II[2]. The World Bank predicts a 5.2% contraction in the global economy this year[3] and here in Australia, we are in recession for the first time in almost 30 years[4]. It is estimated that 34 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020 alone[5] (that is people living on less than US$1.90 a day).

Hidden in the middle of all this bad news is another emerging crisis – modern slavery caused by fallout of COVID.

Pre-COVID, it was estimated that 40 million people were victims of modern slavery globally[6]. Women, men, girls and boys are living under the control of someone else, not free to leave, working for the benefit of others. Modern slavery happens in every country and is especially prevalent in our own backyard. Two thirds of modern slavery victims are in the Asia Pacific[7].

Anyone can be a victim of modern slavery, but we know these groups of people are especially vulnerable:

  • People on the move – migrants, refugees, internally displaced people;
  • Victims of trauma and abuse;
  • Women and Children;
  • Minority groups – ethnic, religious, LGBTQ+;
  • People with irregular migration status or temporary visa holders.

At its heart, modern slavery is about the exploitation of vulnerability. And globally, many of our fellow human beings have just become a whole lot more vulnerable because of COVID.

We know this pandemic is having an unequal impact globally, with the burden especially heavy for the most vulnerable in our world.

It’s been said that we are all in this same lake together, but on vastly different vessels. For the most vulnerable, already on a flimsy life raft, COVID has only made that more unstable.

For the millions in the informal economy who are reliant on what they can earn each day to put food on the table, lockdown has had a devastating impact. These are the people who often fall outside safety nets.

Soon after lockdown measures were put in place, red flags started appearing in windows across Latin America signalling a family in distress, with no food and no way to get it. These sorts of pressures lead to desperation and it is almost impossible to make good decisions when you are desperate, and left with few choices, let alone safe or legal ones.

We are already seeing an increase in the online sexual exploitation of children, increases in forced labour and spikes in forced marriage. These trends are forecast to escalate in the months to come.

  • As millions of people spend more time online, there has been a huge increase in online pornography, aided by free access to premium content in countries experiencing lockdown by porn industry giants. This has led to demand for more content globally including viewers in Australia with corresponding increases in the online sexual exploitation of children[8].
  • World Vision International predicts we will see forced marriages increasing by an additional 13 million over next 10 years as families find themselves in cycles of debt to buy food after having eaten seed reserved for the 2020-21 crops[9].
  • Forced Labour is increasing globally and can be found in:
    • The production of face masks, gloves and other PPE, needed so urgently[10];
    • From increases in child labour;
    • Excessive overtime;
    • Migrant workers locked into factories or let go without pay across South East Asia;
    • Increased abuse and exploitation of domestic workers in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Modern slavery is already an almost invisible crime, with only 0.2% of victims rescued[11]. With governments diverting many resources to COVID responses, this crime has become even harder to detect. This is good news for traffickers and perpetrators who have almost been guaranteed impunity in the current environment[12].

Don’t think this isn’t a problem here. Pre-COVID there were an estimated 15,000 victims of modern slavery in Australia. Early in the pandemic, child exploitation websites were crashing in Australia due to increased demand. Four children were rescued in NSW and VIC[13]. Temporary visa holders, international students, seasonal workers, those with ‘hidden jobs’ like cleaners, construction workers, casual contractors are all more vulnerable and at higher risk of exploitation.

And what about our place in this hidden crisis? Our complex economic system of confusing and opaque global supply chains is an environment ripe for unchecked exploitation.

Dare we ask ourselves – as a people made in God’s image, redeemed by Christ, living anew in the reality of the coming kingdom – what does good stewardship look like in my purchasing, viewing and investing decisions? Is it OK to contribute to the suffering of a fellow human being (also made in the image of God and loved by Him) because of my decision to save money and buy the cheapest thing I can find? How can we see the people behind the product and consider their wellbeing before taking it off the shelf?

We won’t solve this crisis of modern slavery by our own individual purchasing decisions, but neither can we ignore the storm that is building by the moment. What will loving God and loving others in this ongoing season of COVID-caused suffering look like for you?

Here are three things you may consider doing –

  1. Commit to Prayer
    • for victims of modern slavery today;
    • for God’s protection on the millions of newly at-risk people around our world and in Australia;
    • for God’s wisdom and energy to see how we can love and advocate for the dignity of the people who make the products we buy;
    • for integrity of hearts and minds as we spend more time than ever on screens;
  2. As God’s people, prioritise caring for the vulnerable in your community. Isolated, unconnected individuals are at great risk of exploitation. As the church, continue to creatively reach out to all people, especially those that have few safety nets.
  3. In your workplace be advocates of responsible sourcing (hello all you procurement heroes), responsible employment, and dignified working conditions for your suppliers, too.

[1] ILO: COVID-19 causes devastating losses in working hours and employment, 7 Apr 20,  https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_740893/lang–en/index.htm, accessed 11 June 20

[2] COVID-19 to Plunge Global Economy into Worst Recession since World War II, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/06/08/covid-19-to-plunge-global-economy-into-worst-recession-since-world-war-ii, accessed 11 June 2020

[3] COVID-19 to Plunge Global Economy into Worst Recession since World War II, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/06/08/covid-19-to-plunge-global-economy-into-worst-recession-since-world-war-ii, accessed 11 June 2020

[4] Australia in its first recession in 29 years as March quarter GDP shrinks, 3 June 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-03/australian-economy-gdp-recession-march-quarter-2020/12315140, accessed 12 June 2020

[5] COVID-19 to slash global economic output by $8.5 trillion over next two years, 13 May 2020, https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/policy/wesp-mid-2020-report.html, accessed 5 June 2020

[6] ILO, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage, 2017 https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf, accessed 10 June 2020

[7] ILO, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage, 2017 https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf, accessed 3 June 2020

[8] Child abuse predator ‘handbook’ lists ways to target children during coronavirus lockdown, 14 May 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/14/child-abuse-predator-handbook-lists-ways-to-target-children-during-coronavirus-lockdown, accessed 17 June 2020

[9] World Vision International, COVID-19 Aftershocks: A Perfect Storm, 14 May 2020, https://www.wvi.org/publications/report/coronavirus-health-crisis/covid-19-aftershocks-perfect-storm, accessed 12 June 2020

[10] The Telegraph, Don’t forget the people behind the PPE – migrant workers meeting the surge in demand for medical gloves, 17 April, 2020 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/dont-forget-people-behind-ppe-migrant-workersmeeting-surge/, accessed 17 June 2020.

[11] The Mekong Club, Modern slavery: the issue of our time, https://themekongclub.org, accessed 11 June 2020

[12] UNODC, IMPACT OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC ON TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS: Preliminary findings and messaging based on rapid stocktaking, https://www.unodc.org/documents/Advocacy-Section/HTMSS_Thematic_Brief_on_COVID-19.pdf, accessed 11 June 2020

[13] Child exploitation websites ‘crashing’ during coronavirus amid sharp rise in reported abuse, 20 May 2020,

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-20/afp-concerned-by-child-exploitation-spike-amid-coronavirus/12265544, accessed 3 June 2020

*The writer, Karine Woldhuis, works with For Freedom, the anti-trafficking ministry of SIM International. She attends Ashfield Presbyterian Church with her husband John and three children. She is a member of the Gospel, Society and Culture committee.

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