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Unprecedented times – Why now is the time to act on modern slavery

Though modern slavery has no universally accepted definition, it is commonly understood as “the severe exploitation of others for commercial gain.” This definition encompasses a range of practices which include: forced labour, human trafficking, and the worst forms of child labour.

There are an estimated 40 million people in situations of modern slavery or forced labour globally. Of those 40 million, 66 per cent (30 million) are in the Asia-Pacific region. As such, it is no surprise that modern slavery poses an enormous concern for ASEAN nations and Australia.

With the advent of COVID-19, efforts to address modern slavery have grinded to a halt. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been forced to cease operations, supply chains have been strained as production scales back, and governments have turned their attention towards tackling the pandemic; claiming that now is not the right time to focus on this issue.

Meanwhile, modern slavery has continued to flourish. If anything, COVID-19 has created a perfect environment for it to thrive. It is in these unprecedented times that we, more than ever, should be acting on issues of modern slavery in the Indo-Pacific. 

Source: Pexels 2020

Increased vulnerability to modern slavery

COVID-19 has undoubtedly increased vulnerability to modern slavery. The ILO has reported that as a result of the pandemic, global unemployment is expected to rise by 25 million. The shutdown of factories and sudden reduction in demand has forced workers in global supply chains to turn to exploitative forms of employment to make ends meet. 

Human traffickers have capitalised on this, with an UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)’s report noting that smugglers are adjusting their business models to prey on those who have lost their primary source of income as a result of COVID-19. The pandemic has also disproportionately affected vulnerable groups such as migrants, women, and children; who are also increasingly at risk of being drawn into child labour as schools shut down.

With their focus on the pandemic, government agencies are ill-equipped to tackle modern slavery. This, in conjunction with NGO efforts being disrupted, has often left victims unsupported and without recourse. As such, COVID-19 has undeniably worsened the prevalence and impact of modern slavery in the Indo-Pacific and should be tackled immediately to protect the most vulnerable. 

Increased vulnerability to COVID-19

Some consider the issue of modern slavery peripheral to COVID-19, claiming that you can separate social justice matters from public health ones. But this distinction is not reflected in reality. Those vulnerable to, and victims of, modern slavery are more likely to be infected with COVID-19 due to their unsafe working conditions. One ILO report noted that 57 per cent of migrant workers in Thailand did not have appropriate access to personal protective equipment, despite working during the pandemic.

Thailand is not a stand-alone case. Countries such as Singapore also demonstrate the link between poor labour practices and COVID-19. Migrant workers, particularly those trafficked into the country, are often kept in close quarters with no social distancing, making them more susceptible to being infected. Furthermore, because of their precarious status, they are less likely to seek health care and more likely to lie about their symptoms and act as transmitters in their communities. 

Thus, poor labour practices are just as much linked to modern slavery as they are to the problem of COVID-19. Tackling COVID-19 requires that governments address issues of modern slavery now, as the two cannot be separated from one another.

Acting in unprecedented times

Though the picture looks bleak, now is the perfect time for us to act. Governments are finally paying attention to modern slavery, evidenced by the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 in Australia and the commitment of ASEAN Labour Ministers to addressing the impact of COVID-19 on labour practices and rights. On a social and cultural level, consumers are more aware than ever of modern slavery and corporations are increasingly pressured to do the same. The region is primed and ready for us to take action on this issue.

So, what needs to be done? Governments should legislate to protect the rights of migrant workers and prevent modern slavery in their borders. Corporations should also take responsibility, holding their suppliers to high standards and ensuring that when modern slavery is found, there are appropriate mechanisms in place. Though NGOs are limited in what they can do due to COVID-related restrictions, they should be prepared to hit the ground running as there will be plenty who need their help.

Of course, this is only the beginning. Modern slavery manifests itself differently across the region and solutions must be individually tailored to the country. However, a lack of precedent is not an excuse for us to turn away from the issue. These unprecedented times are the best time to act on modern slavery in the Indo-Pacific. 

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