Research projects explore impact of COVID-19 on modern slavery

Industrial sewing machine

The AHRC-supported Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) announces 11 new projects analysing the impact of COVID-19 on modern slavery.

As part of its first research call, the projects mark a major milestone for the centre, which was created by the investment of public funding to transform the effectiveness of laws and policies designed to address modern slavery.

The centre is a consortium of six academic organisations led by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and is funded and actively supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund.

Building greater resilience

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges for workers and people affected by modern slavery. However, the full impact of COVID-19 on various forms of exploitation is yet to be examined thoroughly.

These 11 projects are aiming to improve understanding of the effects of the pandemic on systems and structures associated with modern slavery and associated practices. This includes both the effects of the pandemic and the responses to it by governments, businesses and organisations, that can affect people’s vulnerability to exploitation and the systems underpinning exploitative practices.

An important part of the projects is identifying ways to build greater resilience in the face of the pandemic and longer-term.

The impact of COVID-19 on global supply chains

Many of the projects focus on analysing various aspects of the impact of COVID-19 on global supply chains, including:

  • all tiers of fashion supply chains in India
  • factories producing medical gloves in Malaysia supplying the NHS in the UK
  • the situation of women workers in Bangladeshi garment factories
  • business responses to the pandemic in supply chains globally.

Two projects look more specifically at the situation of workers in the UK. One analyses the situation of seasonal migrant workers from Romania in the British agriculture industry amid the pandemic. Another applies new technologies to establish the location of informal workplaces in the UK and the situation in the informal economy evolving during the pandemic.

Making a real impact on policies

Other projects have a more global focus, assessing how the situation of communities already vulnerable to exploitation has been affected by COVID-19. This includes:

  • research analysing the impact of the pandemic on displaced Syrian communities working in the agriculture industry across the Middle East
  • a project on building the resilience of vulnerable communities and Tanzania and Senegal
  • the impact of COVID-19 on the country in transition using the example of Sudan.

All projects have a common focus: to make a real impact on policies addressing modern slavery and exploitative practices, develop practical recommendations to decision-makers on how to mitigate the risks brought by COVID-19, and ‘build back better’ after it.

Background: the impact of COVID-19 on modern slavery

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges for workers and for people affected by modern slavery. Its impacts have been uneven and often concentrated on those who were already disadvantaged in society.

Supply chains have been disrupted, with a large number of workers losing their jobs and being forced to look for opportunities in informal economies, which are typically rife with exploitation.

Rapid changes in labour supply and demand might have also tempted some businesses to use it as an excuse to exploit vulnerable workers or force them to work through the pandemic, putting them at risk of contracting the virus.

Early reports have also indicated that the pandemic might make it more difficult for people caught up in modern slavery come forward, while some survivors already in the care of the state experienced difficulties in receiving basic support to rebuild their lives.

Additionally, the pandemic has affected the wider structures and safety nets for the most disadvantaged, including women, children or migrant workers.

However, clear global trends are yet to be established, as businesses are contending with difficult trade-offs to secure their financial viability and protect their employees. The full impact of local lockdowns and States prioritising their coronavirus responses alongside addressing modern slavery is also not clear.

A healthier and more resilient society

Professor Christopher Smith, AHRC Executive Chair, said:

AHRC is committed to using innovative arts and humanities research to tackle modern slavery. These projects are a testament to this longstanding mission.

As we move forward towards a healthier and more resilient society post-COVID-19, it is imperative that the most vulnerable do not get left behind. To ensure this, we must catalyse new insights into the practices of modern slavery and the impact that COVID-19 has had on the victims of modern slavery.

By convening expertise across the social sciences and the arts and humanities, the Modern Slavery PEC has demonstrated the vital role of academic research in improving society and increasing the quality of life of those most in need.

Further information

The full list of projects

1. Refugee labour under lockdown

Many displaced Syrians scattered across the Middle East work in the informal economy under precarious conditions, with no financial or social safety net, with refugee workers in agriculture hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, we do not know exactly how the pandemic has reshaped working conditions, and how the loss of jobs, local movement restrictions and diminished humanitarian assistance have increased Syrians’ vulnerability to labour exploitation.

A research team led by One Health FIELD Network at the University of Edinburgh investigates the impact of COVID-19 on displaced Syrians’ vulnerability to exploitative labour in agriculture in northern Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Principal Investigator: Dr Ann-Christin Zuntz, University of Edinburgh

Partners: One Health FIELD Network at University of Edinburgh, CARA Syria Programme, local partners

2. Building local resilience to modern slavery after COVID-19: Senegal and Kenya

This project explores the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on community-based anti-slavery work, using an example of two initiatives in Senegal and Kenya.

The project uses a peer-reviewed slavery-free communities resilience framework to explore the structural, legal, cultural, social and individual factors and processes underpinning exploitation and resilience in each setting.

The research will address four key elements:

  • examining the factors underpin community resilience against exploitation
  • identifying the ways in which anti-slavery projects contributed to building resilience before COVID-19
  • investigating the impact of COVID-19 on the structural issues, legislation, institutions, systems and practices that underpin resilience to exploitation
  • highlighting what issues, partnerships and processes need to be prioritised to develop and protect resilience to exploitation.

Principal Investigator: Dr Alison Gardner, University of Nottingham

Partners: University of Nottingham, Free the Slaves

3. Predicting the presence and location of informal workplaces in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic

A research team led by Nottingham Trent University is examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the operation of the informal unregulated economy in the UK and the presence of modern slavery within it.

Informal businesses, which are estimated to sustain 2.5 million workers equal to 9% of formal private sector workers, secure competitive advantage by labour exploitation, particularly migrant workers who tolerate insecure, irregular hours, wage underpayment and no holiday pay.

This research project focuses on estimating the scale and location of informal workplaces in nail bar and garment manufacture, examining the ability of consumers to act as ‘enforcement’ agents, and exploring how COVID-19 has impacted on employers and workers in informal businesses.

Principal Investigator: Prof. Ian Clark, Nottingham Trent University

Partners: Nottingham Trent University, the Office of Labour Market Enforcement, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Gangmasters Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the Home Office, the Responsible Car Wash Scheme

4. Impact of COVID-19: a case study of Indian fashion supply chains

This project assesses how clothing brands, garment manufacturers and suppliers in India have reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown strategies, as well as the short term and long term implications for workers within the industry.

By using pre-COVID-19 findings and working with existing partners and industry stakeholders, a direct comparison between pre and during-COVID-19 can be made to determine areas of increased risk for workers. By identifying these risks, opportunities for improved guidance and development of policies can be determined to mitigate these risks.

Principal Investigator: Dr Mark Sumner, University of Leeds

Partners: University of Leeds, Goa Institute of Management

5. Impact of COVID-19 on global garment supply chains

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly altered garment supply chains. Demand for new clothes dropped amid lockdowns and many large brands cancelled their orders, whilst some refused to pay for goods already produced. This has resulted in suppliers being unable to pay wages and left workers in garment supply chains at increased risk of being exploited.

This project explores the impact of COVID-19 on global garment supply chains to determine whether, how, and with what consequences it is deepening workers’ vulnerability to forced labour, as well as examining efforts to detect and prevent it. The project will put vulnerable workers at the heart of the research with the aim of helping them to influence corporate practices and government policy.

Principal Investigator: Prof Genevieve LeBaron, University of Sheffield

Partners: University of Sheffield, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and Worker Rights Consortium, the University of British Columbia Global Reporting Centre

6. Preventing modern slavery in Malaysian medical gloves factories

Malaysia is the main source of medical gloves to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), during the pandemic providing it with around 2 million gloves. Medical glove manufacturing in Malaysia is reliant on migrant workers, with reports of exploitative practices sometimes amounting to forced labour.

This project explores the impact of COVID-19 on the structures and processes affecting workers in the sector during the pandemic, both in Malaysia and the UK, including workers, factory managers, suppliers, purchasers and policymakers.

The project aims to identify practical levers for positive change by focusing on how to incentivise and implement improvements to the medical gloves supply chain at both ends of the supply chain.

Principal Investigator: Prof. Alex Hughes, Newcastle University

Partners: Newcastle University, University of Nottingham, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Impactt Limited

7. Identifying good practice in protection of people from modern slavery during a pandemic

The pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges for workers and for people affected by modern slavery. At this moment, however, the full impact is yet to be examined thoroughly.

This project is identifying key socio-economic challenges presented by the pandemic and the effectiveness of measures designed to protect workers and people affected by modern slavery.

The aim of the project is to create guiding principles on actions against modern slavery during the state of emergency, containing important human rights norms and principles to be upheld by governmental and non-governmental actors during similar future crises.

Principal Investigator: Prof Tomoya Obokata, Keele University

Partners: Keele University, Minority Rights Group International

8. Preventing exploitation of women in Bangladesh garment industry

Bangladesh, one of the least developed countries in the world, has the largest garment export industry in South Asia that supplies goods to retailers all over the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has put estimated 2.8 million sector’s workers, mostly women, at risk of being laid off without pay or forced to work through the pandemic, risking catching the virus.

This project investigates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh. The research aims to analyse the impact of the pandemic on women workers, identify gender policy and regulatory gaps for preventing exploitation, and make research informed recommendations for post-COVID gender policy measures to prevent modern slavery within the garment sector.

Principal Investigator: Prof Muhammad Azizul Islam, University of Aberdeen

Partners: University of Aberdeen, University of Dhaka, Traidcraft Exchange

9. Supply chain management in the face of COVID-19

Project exploring effective methods to build firms’ commitment to addressing modern slavery in supply chains in the face of the pandemic. It examines the tensions faced by firms in light of COVID-19 to identify patterns of risks for addressing modern slavery in corporate supply chains.

Insight to (de)prioritisation of modern slavery will provide vital evidence on whether existing progress is being undermined. Through collaboration with government departments, NGOs, social enterprises, and professional bodies, the research is intrinsically connected to policy makers and practitioners seeking to address modern slavery.

Principal Investigator: Dr Bruce Pinnington, University of Liverpool Management School

Partners: University of Liverpool Management School, University of Nottingham, the Chartered Institute for Procurement and Supply (CIPS), the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), Crown Commercial Service (CCS)

10. Protecting Romanian seasonal migrant workers after COVID-19

This project focuses on Romanian seasonal agricultural workers, who, despite representing approximately 40% of the UK food industry workforce, are highly prone to exploitation.

It will assess the impact that the pandemic has had on UK food supply chains, which led to a rapid labour recruitment process with limited attention to making sure that employment agencies and gangmasters were meeting appropriate standards to prevent exploitation.

The research aims to provide evidence on the impact of COVID-19, create policy recommendations that highlight the needs and concerns of the agricultural industry and support businesses to improve their modern slavery prevention practices.

Principal Investigator: Dr Oana Burcu

Partners: Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), Fresca Group, Pro-Force, Justice and Care, Work Rights Centre, Roma Support Group

11.COVID-19 and modern slavery in Sudan

A project exploring the impact of COVID-19 on modern slavery in Sudan – a country in transition. The research is analysing different aspects of this impact, considering local, regional, and international developments, particularly in key trafficking routes in Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile.

The research aims to form the foundation for the development of guidance for effective policy and practice to address modern slavery in Sudan during and after the pandemic, built in collaboration with UK-based Sudanese survivors.

Principal Investigator: Dr Katarina Schwarz, University of Nottingham

Partners: University of Nottingham, Royal United Services Institute, Global Partners Governance, Waging Peace

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