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A summer of... exploitation and vulnerability

1st July 2021 | Modern slavery

We spoke to several modern slavery experts about how the COVID-19 pandemic and loosening of restrictions could impact workers this summer.

The Clewer Initiative

Over the last couple of months, non-essential retail businesses such as hand car washes hairdressers and nail salons; hospitality venues, self-catering accommodation and holiday lets have all been allowed to re-open.

While this has brought great relief to many, it may have unintended consequences for the growth of exploitation in our country. It is also feared that the current migrant labour shortages could result in criminal gangs seeking to take advantage of the situation. We spoke to several modern slavery experts about how the COVID-19 pandemic and loosening of restrictions could impact workers this summer.

April McCoig, the Victims and Partnership Lead at the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s Office said: “The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerability of victims and survivors and in many ways has created new vulnerabilities. Individuals who are desperate for work may find themselves accepting exploitative working conditions thinking that it is their best or only option.”

The Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit at the National Crime Agency added: “During the COVID-19 pandemic when many public-facing businesses, including nail bars, were unable to open due to trading restrictions, labour exploitation in such settings became unviable. As restrictions ease, these settings are almost certain to re-emerge as places for exploitation, and exploitation within supply chains will also continue.”

Shayne Tyler, Group Compliance Director at the Fresca Group and Modern Slavery Campaigner, comments: “The instability in the UK labour market caused by the variability and restrictions of both Covid-19 and Brexit has resulted in a significant reduction of available workers that are legally entitled to live and work in the UK. The last time this happened the demand was fulfilled with illegal workers, often without the knowledge of their employers. Sadly, with every illegal worker, exploitation is always present, so the outlook does not look promising as the UK facing increases in risks for those most vulnerable within the workplace.”

“Last year, during the first wave of COVID-19, we noticed increased welfare issues as there were too many workers for the work available. This led to workers being unable to work the hours necessary to support their welfare. As a result, many returned home and so now the opposite is true, with not enough workers to meet the demand. Cases of attempted illegal working have increased and exploitation in working hours, holiday and travel times for work are increasing the vulnerability of the workers. The situation is extremely worrying and is getting worse.”

Jenni Baines, Senior Investigating Officer London and South East for the GLAA, says: “The pandemic has served to conceal further the hidden slavery and exploitation throughout the UK. As lockdowns ease, it is crucial we provide a response that supports people and removes them from that suffering. During the pandemic, those in dire economic situations have only become more reliant on their exploiters. This creates a cycle of entrapment and desperation.”

Justine Currell, of anti-slavery charity Unseen, concludes: “Covid-19 and the subsequent economic downturn affected the visibility of the threat in such places as car washes and nail bars. As you would expect, the proportion of calls from the public to the Modern Slavery Helpline declined during the lockdowns as fewer people were out and about. Now we are emerging from lockdown, we’re seeing contacts increasing significantly.”

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