The Effects of COVID-19 on Migration and Modern Slavery

By Deanna Davy - 09 October 2020
The Effects of COVID-19 on Migration and Modern Slavery

Dr Deanna Davy examines the situation of vulnerable migrants and victims of modern slavery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is part of a forthcoming Global Policy e-book on modern slavery. Contributions from leading experts highlighting practical and theoretical issues surrounding the persistence of slavery, human trafficking and forced labour will be serialised here over the coming months.

There is no globally agreed definition of ‘modern slavery’. The term ‘modern slavery’ is used to refer to a range of exploitative practices including trafficking in persons, forced labour, child labour, and a range of slavery-like practices. The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the ways in which economic and social inequalities increase vulnerability to slavery among certain populations. One of the groups that is most negatively affected by the pandemic is essential workers, especially migrant workers and daily wage labourers. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, migrant workers were already at heightened risk of modern slavery, due to their reliance on daily wages,  irregular status – of some - in the destination country, and exclusion from the State economic and social support services. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020, migrant workers were not only vulnerable to catching the virus in their often hazardous working and living conditions but experienced an increased risk of destitution in the destination country after losing employment; detention as a result of migrants’ irregular status; indebtedness as a result of loans taken before and during the pandemic; and increased vulnerability to debt bondage and slavery.

This essay explores the negative effects of COVID-19 on modern slavery at the global level. Drawing on grey literature and media reports published during the period March to September 2020, the essay begins by discussing  the impacts of COVID-19 on migrant workers around the world. The second section examines the effects of the pandemic on the currently enslaved individuals. The third section briefly examines how traffickers are operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. The final section addresses the ability of international organisations and NGOs to provide direct support to victims of slavery and vulnerable persons during this crisis.

COVID-19 impact on workers

Unemployment and poverty

The International Labour Organization (ILO) predicted in March 2020 that 25 million jobs will be lost worldwide as a result of COVID-19. Workers in global supply chains are particularly vulnerable to job termination and subsequent economic destitution. Widespread unemployment means that major sections of the global population are at greater risk of exploitation in forced labour and other forms of modern slavery. Family members of workers are also at risk. For example, as parents’ access to work decreases, the risks of child exploitation, through child labour and trafficking for forced marriage or sexual exploitation is increasing. These risks have been clearly illustrated in other recent crises. For example, destitute Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have been forced to marry their young daughters to Bangladeshi men, or have fallen prey to traffickers operating in the refugee camps.

The lockdowns that have been implemented to halt the spread of the virus have led to mass layoffs as many global brands cancelled orders and factories were required to shut down. The garment industry has been acutely affected, putting its workers at considerable risk of increased poverty. By late March 2020 over one million garment workers in Bangladesh had been laid off or temporarily suspended. Similar crises are being experienced by workers across South and Southeast Asia, including in Cambodia, India, Myanmar, and Viet Nam. Such large-scale unemployment, even if only temporary in nature, will make the economic situation of a significant number of garment workers, and their families, extremely precarious. This in turn, will lead to increases in household debt, particularly in places where debt is already endemic, due to poverty. Such mass unemployment, high debt and limited or no government safety nets will create opportunities for unscrupulous business owners and human traffickers who can cover their financial losses incurred during the crisis by exploiting the cheap labour of people who have suffered sudden unemployment.

Widespread job losses, the closure of regular migration pathways, and reduced scrutiny of labour standards increase vulnerability to modern slavery. Extreme economic distress brings with it increased slavery risks as families find themselves with limited employment choices and must take considerable risks to ensure their survival. The economic and social impacts of COVID-19 will exacerbate the ‘push factors’ that lead to both increased migration and increased vulnerability to modern slavery, such as poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunities for decent work.

The 1.1 billion workers who make up the informal economy tend to be most impacted by lock down measures.  Vulnerability of informal sector workers is particularly acute in the Global South, which accounts for 93 per cent of the world’s informal employment. In India, approximately 80 per cent of the country’s 470 million workers are in the informal sector. Informal employment typically lacks basic economic and social protections such as health-care services and income replacement in case of sickness or lockdown. In April 2020, close to 1.1 billion informal economy workers were living and working in countries in full lockdown, and an additional 304 million in countries in partial lockdown. These workers together represented 67 per cent of informal employment.

Income losses for informal economy workers are likely to be significant. ILO estimates showed that earnings for informal workers were expected to decline in the first month of the pandemic by 60 per cent globally, 28 per cent in upper-middle-income countries, 82 per cent in lower-middle and low-income countries, and 76 per cent in high-income countries. The prediction that lower middle-income countries would be hardest hit was accurate, with these countries experiencing the most significant decline in global labour income. In middle-income countries labour income losses have reached 15.1 per cent, with the Americas the hardest hit region at 12.1 per cent.

Migrant workers are stranded without means to support themselves

Globally, lockdowns have affected demand for casual and temporary labour in various industries, such as apparel, retail, and hospitality, leaving workers without income. Many migrant workers are unable to return to their home countries due to border closures and lack of affordable transport. Vulnerable migrant workers generally do not have savings or access to social security protections in destination countries. Many workers have been left with limited access to food, accommodation and health care, which poses significant health and humanitarian risks and increases their vulnerability to modern slavery. Examples of workers stranded without the means to support themselves, and in dire living conditions are abundant. For example, in March, The Guardian reported that the COVID-19 lockdown had turned Qatar's largest migrant camp into 'virtual prison'.  Thousands of labourers had been trapped in squalid, over-crowded conditions as a huge area of Doha Industrial Area had been sealed off by police. In April, The Guardian published an article discussing the plight of migrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The article reported that overseas labour migrants in GCC countries were crammed into work camps, stood down from their jobs due to lockdowns, facing high rates of infection, and with no way home. The various workers had been mostly confined to dormitories.

Lack of regular migration channels

Since the start of the pandemic, regular migration pathways around the world have been suddenly closed. This is likely to result in higher rates of regional irregular migration, thereby fuelling migrant smuggling and human trafficking. In the current climate, irregular migrant workers are more likely to be pushed into working for unscrupulous employers or agencies willing to exploit their vulnerability. When a migrant’s visa limits them to particular work, finding new employment, following a sudden lay-off due to the crisis, may be extremely difficult.

While foreign labour migration has largely stalled during the pandemic, NGOs are predicting that when quarantine measures are lifted, they expect ‘a huge increase in migration and exploitation at an international level of people going from poor countries to rich countries as the poor need money and the rich need a cheap work force to restart their businesses’. As the pandemic exacerbates financial stress and desperation, more people will be forced to move irregularly for employment purposes, and irregular migrant workers are likely to experience increased human trafficking risks and be more vulnerable to forced labour both during and at the end of their journey.

Gender-based violence risks for migrant women workers

For female workers, the pandemic brings not only threats to health and economic stability but also personal safety as gender-based violence has been observed to increase during health emergencies. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) gender-based violence often increases during health emergencies due to broken social and protective networks, and lack of support services.

UN Women reports that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting women migrant workers across Asia and the Pacific, in particular irregular migrant women. Women migrant workers already face various risks, including restrictive migration policies, insecure forms of labour, crowded living conditions, racism and xenophobia, and undervaluation of their contribution to social and economic development. Women migrant workers are also exposed to multiple intersections of gender-based violence (GBV). These conditions will significantly worsen during the COVID-19 pandemic due to, for example, women’s confinement in the home with abusive partners, fractured social networks due to lock downs, and the lack of support services available while key workers are forced to suspend community outreach activities.

A study by Refugees International has found that lock downs, border closures, and economic desperation caused by the pandemic have increased the risk of migrant women and girls suffering domestic violence, forced and early marriage, and trafficking in persons. Domestic violence has also significantly increased in wealthy countries during the pandemic. For example, in the UK domestic abuse murders doubled in the first 21 days of lock down in that country.

Forced labour for PPE and food production

The production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and food for the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to the increase in slavery. The increased demand for masks, gloves and PPE has exacerbated the  use of forced labour in their production in the United States (US), China, and Malaysia. In particular, Malaysia has been identified as a country that is experiencing increased forced labour for the production of PPE, with mostly poor migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal being exploited in the production of rubber gloves.

The pandemic may also be leading to the relaxation of rules about purchasing these products from suppliers who are suspected of using forced labour in their businesses and supply chains. Due to global demands for higher food production during the pandemic, there are reportedly also higher risks of exploitation in the agriculture sector, which is an industry that already has high rates of forced labour.

How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting adults and children already in situations of slavery

The Global Protection Cluster Anti-Trafficking Task Team highlights the range of impacts COVID-19 is having on those who are already in a situation of modern slavery. For example, trafficked persons may experience heightened violence and abuse at the hands of traffickers who are less able to make a profit from them due to labour market disruptions. Trafficked persons may have no ability to self-isolate or socially distance themselves from others, especially if they are forced to provide sexual services. Trafficked persons who have had their personal documentation removed by the traffickers may experience additional barriers in accessing COVID-19 related healthcare and other services. Lack of documentation might also put them at risk of abuse, detention and re-victimisation from State actors enforcing quarantines and managing checkpoints. Finally, trafficked persons may struggle to access information, protection and support, during and after their trafficking experience.

Similar negative COVID-19 effects have recently been reported by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. According to their report, the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected survivors of sexual exploitation and forced marriage, who are experiencing delays in accessing criminal justice; finding it more difficult to access protection and rehabilitation services; being subjected to higher risks of re-trafficking due to vastly limited employment opportunities; and suffering psychological trauma, as lockdown may trigger memories of their previous captivity.  For trafficking victims still in confinement by their traffickers, COVID-19 measures may make their situation even worse. For example, in an environment where priorities and actions are geared towards limiting the spread of the virus, it is easier for traffickers to hide their operations, making victims increasingly invisible. Identification of victims and subsequent referral to social protection schemes may therefore become even more challenging. Tech Against Trafficking initiative’s COVID-19 Impact survey initial results showed that two-thirds of surveyed survivors indicated that they were receiving less support during the pandemic, with support services severely disrupted and/or altogether cancelled.

How traffickers are operating during the pandemic

The use of technology to recruit trafficking victims appears to have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in the US, young girls have been approached by older men through social media and apps such as Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, and there have been reports of girls being groomed by traffickers in Northern Virginia.

A number of recent media reports have also warned that the online sexual exploitation of children is increasing during lockdowns. For example, a BBC report published on 29 May states that, based on police reports, traffickers and paedophiles are capitalising on the COVID-19 pandemic to sexually exploit children. The article further reports that global demand for child abuse images have significantly increased. Reports of online child pornography material more than doubled globally to more than four million between March and April 2020. The US-based Center for Missing and Exploited Children said some of that increase related to one particularly ‘horrific and widely-circulated video’. In the UK, there were nearly nine million attempts in April to access child sexual abuse websites, which had been previously blocked by the Internet Watch Foundation. Demand for abuse imagery also rapidly increased in Australia, where Australian police say that downloading child sex abuse images increased by 86 per cent in the three weeks after the 21 March lockdown in Australia. In the Philippines officials reported that reports of online abuse material have also significantly increased - from approximately 59,000 in February to more than 101,000 in March, the month that the  coronavirus lockdown began in the Philippines. The Guardian reported in May that child abusers have created and shared an online grooming manual describing ways to manipulate and exploit the increased number of children at home and online during Covid-19.

How the pandemic is affecting organisations that provide direct support to victims of slavery, and vulnerable persons

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, NGOs that provide support to vulnerable persons and victims of slavery have been facing increased financial difficulties. Such financial challenges were raised as a concern by over one third of NGO participants in the Tech Against Trafficking’s COVID-19 Impact survey.  Many European NGOs, such as Unseen UK, which runs victim helplines, safe-houses and outreach services for survivors, have reportedly lost significant amounts of funding and may be forced to stop their victim support services altogether because they can no longer pay for staff salaries and rent and other ongoing costs.

Lockdowns in countries around the world have also limited anti-slavery organisations’ ability to do their work. NGO staff, for example, have been unable to work from their offices, and to travel to communities to provide outreach support to vulnerable persons and survivors. The pandemic has resulted in the closures of clinics, shelters and offices of service providers, and placed restrictions on in-person interactions, affecting the support services available to trafficked persons. The breadth of disruption of anti-slavery work has not been measured; however, examples are abundant and wide reaching. For instance, the schools for vulnerable children and their families in Niger that Anti-Slavery International has long supported have been shut down in response to the pandemic. This has meant that the children who had been attending that school stop receiving school meals, and are thus at increased risk of hunger and placing additional financial burdens on their families.

Slavery prevention programmes that rely on community mobilisation are also being severely disrupted. Grassroots organisations must restrict their activities, particularly those that require travel or community gatherings in countries where lockdowns and social distancing measures are in place. In terms of law enforcement and justice, the pandemic is also resulting in an increased workload and/or reduced capacity and resources of law enforcement authorities to respond to reported cases of trafficking in persons. The pandemic may also be delaying support to victims currently in the criminal justice process.


The COVID-19 pandemic is having a range of negative impacts on persons vulnerable to slavery, and those already in situations of slavery. In addition to increasing the existing social inequalities that lead to slavery, the pandemic is causing major disruption for NGOs and other organisations that provide direct support to vulnerable persons and victims of modern slavery. As the pandemic continues, and an increasing number of people become vulnerable to slavery, the international community must carefully consider effective responses to mitigating the negative impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable persons, including migrant workers, and on those already in situations of slavery. An effective response to preventing modern slavery during the COVID-19 pandemic, and after, involves States allocating additional financial resources for (1) Protection: Social and financial support, equivalent to the living wage in each country for all workers who have lost their income due to the crisis must be provided to all migrants, and informal workers. It is important that the international community expands eligibility for unemployment benefits, social assistance and access to national health services for vulnerable populations, including migrants; (2) Inclusion: Support during COVID-19, including medical treatment, testing and social assistance, must be provided in a way that is accessible to all communities affected by, and vulnerable to slavery; (3) Mitigation: Suitable protection and support must be provided to those people at-risk, and people already in situations of slavery, including free shelter and comprehensive support services.



Deanna Davy is a Research Fellow at the Rights Lab, University of Nottingham. She researches modern slavery and related issues.

Image: Rex Pe via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Disqus comments