Covid-19 and the day after: An assessment of risks related to the consumption of products and other services resulted from trafficked labour exploitation and others similar practices

During the celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations (UN), from 25 to 27 September 2015, the world leaders have adopted the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) with the aim to frame the global development vision for the next 15 years.  The SDG covers a significant broad scope of actions with 17 goals and 169 targets, essential for achieving the particular goals while, covering a wide range of human rights issues across its three dimensions: economic, social and environmental. While it acknowledges that in addition to the important engagement of the UN Member States, various actors including businesses and individuals forms an essential part for solving any sustainable challenges by leading to the formulation of the SDG goals.[1] A central feature of the SDG is Target 8.7 that addresses the need to take immediate and effective measures, inter alia, for ending modern slavery and human trafficking as a necessary step for the achievement of Goal 8: “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”. Therefore, Target 8.7 has the potential to assist and provide further global support- in addition to many international and regional legal frameworks and other related national legal standards – in ensuring that businesses and/or their supply chains and their products are not tainted by modern slavery and trafficked labour exploitation.

Few years after this commitment to the SDG, most of the countries around the globe, if not all, have been affected by a global health crisis, the COVID- 19 pandemic. Following the opinion of various governments’ scientific advisers, various States across the globe have responded, either quickly or with a delay, by imposing different forms of temporary lockdowns to flatten the contagion curve. These include limiting social contact or other gatherings (so-called stay at home order); closure of business except those regarded as essential; closure of schools and universities; etc. Because of these measures and with the rise of Covid-19 cases, people around the globe had to manage quickly on how to adjust their lives and/or works upon these new requirements.

In response to many uncertainties concerning the duration of this pandemic, consumers’ behaviour began to radically alter.[2] Despite the fact that number of consumers have shifted from offline to online shopping purchases, amid health fears, households initial spending has increased drastically in regards to food items, beverages, home care and other personal care products.[3] In an attempt to limit the spread of Covid-19 while preparing for any disastrous product shortages, consumers in some States had increased their stock- piling with different products including, but not limited to, toilet papers; cleaning essentials; hand sanitizers; long-lasting food; etc.[4]  This panic buying in combination with the difficulties of many industries to harvest and/or produce and/or supply goods at the time of this pandemic were some of the reasons that contributed to the great attention that was given to the various products shortages that vary from one country to another.

At the same time less focus was placed on the ethical quality of the food and other products that have been purchased by consumers globally. For example, as to the possible difficulties and other risks of those considered as active businesses and/or supply chains amid this pandemic on retaining the ethical values embodied in Target 8.7 of the SDG or in any other related international and regional legal frameworks or guidelines or even in any relevant national laws (e.g. the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act 2010, the Australia Modern Slavery Act 2018 etc.).

What are the risks that might result to products or services being tainted by unjust practices?

Currently, in many States some restrictive lockdown measures have been, or are about to be, lifted. The deliberate enforcement of various forms of restrictions and lockdowns by governments worldwide have resulted to major disruption for most economies, regardless their size or stage of development.[5] Many businesses and supply chains that dependent on industries that experienced a long time of inactivity may face real financial challenges or even insolvency and especially, if a particular financial support is not provided by the home State. In addition to those financial difficulties that businesses may have already experienced due to the virus, the lift of those measures addressing the closure of businesses at the time of the pandemic is likely to result to additional expenses. For example, restarting the operation of businesses and supply chains in particular countries means that they are expected to be adapted to new safety and hygiene regulations and other measures, e.g. social distancing, face covering and gloves, regular cleanings, and provisions of disinfections etc., for tackling Covid-19 while ending health threats for their employees and public. Consequently, the actual negative financial impacts of Covid-19 on businesses and supply chains are still largely unknown.

The negative impacts of Covid-19 on various social, political and economic factors in different States might give rise not only to poverty and unemployment but also, to crimes such as trafficking in persons and other similar practices. As a matter of importance, trafficking in persons and modern slavery involves not only the unregulated and hidden sectors of the market but also, those well-regulated and monitored businesses with outsourcing operations.[6]  Considering this perspective, many businesses and/ or supply chains may be exposed to risks and ethical dilemmas in relation to modern slavery and trafficking in persons. This may also include the deliberate or indirect and unwitting engagement of businesses and/or their supply chains with exploited labour.

For instance, in case where a particular product was attained through businesses’ outsourcing the situation is likely to be more challenging as focus must be placed on the situation and any social, political and economic difficulties on two or more distinct countries and their businesses and supply chains, e.g. developed country and/or developing country. This may include, inter alia, the difficulty of businesses to retain its ethical values, amid covid-19, due to the inability of contacting an inspection to any outsource operation based on the restrictive measures prohibiting travels abroad. In addition, due to the fact that employees need to be protected with the necessary precautionary measures that area likely to be costly or time consuming for businesses and supply chains, victims of trafficking could be seen as a solution to the problem as they will be forced to perform any dangerous, dirty and demeaning job.[7]In this way, trafficked labour exploitation, modern slavery and other similar practices are likely to be used as a way of minimising the cost of production or other labour costs while, businesses and supply chains may try to remain competitive or even to survive the financial or other impacts of Covid-19. As a result of this direct or unwitting engagement of businesses and supply chains with unethical and illegal practices consumers may find themselves to unwittingly contribute towards the financial support of these businesses and supply chains while, safeguarding the continuation of any exploitative chain.

Why consumers are important for ending or accelerating trafficked labour or similar practices?

Whether consumers around the globe have knowledge or not about the existence of products or services that are tainted by trafficking labour or other practices, they are considered as the key for ending such practices. In general terms, there are two forces of demand which are apparent at any trafficking industry. [8] The first is related to the exploiters or third parties demand to maximize profits while, the second and the most important is consumers’ demand, inter alia, for lower retail price.  

As outlined above, Covid-19 had a serious influence on the economic and social aspects on consumers’ behaviour. Despite the fact that no one really knows what challenges the end of Covid-19 might pose towards global economies and unemployment rates, consumers’ needs have already shifted from luxury to necessary purchases. While, a financial crisis similar or greater to the one started in 2007 might result to consumers’ willingness to limit initial spending towards the purchase of cheap products or services. Although, as consumers are driving the demand for trafficked labour or other forms of exploitation, they should start questioning whether the particular cheap retail price they enjoy is the result of the suffering and the denial of human rights of another human being.

How consumers can make a change?

The starting point is to understand that trafficked labour exploitation or modern slavery can take place in any business or industry at any time. The shrimps or eggs you eat, the hazelnut coffee you drink, the chocolate you enjoy, your clothes, or even any service you enjoy such as car wash, nail bars, hair saloon, massage… anything can be tainted by unjust practices.

Currently, many businesses, especially those large or transnational, are preparing modern slavery or other similar human rights statements while identifying the steps they have taken in order to prevent trafficked labour exploitation and modern slavery or similar practices in their businesses and/or their supply chains. These statements are mostly available on their websites in order to increase transparency. In this view, consumers have the chance to read these statements and to make an informed decision on whether they wish to continue or stop supporting financially the practices of a particular business. Consumer and their consumption behaviour is an essential component in order for businesses to achieve financial success. Therefore, by rejecting businesses and shifting towards ethical businesses, they can influence businesses to change their practices. 

In regards to small businesses where consumers may have a face to face contact, they can also play a vital role in identify victims. As such consumers can educate themselves on how to spot the signs of trafficked victims while, reporting suspicious incidents to the police, at any human trafficking or modern slavery helplines, or even to applications (the so-called apps). Some of the signs to spot victims of trafficked labour exploitation for example may include:

  1. Signs of physical or psychological abuse;
  2. fear towards the police and authorities;
  3. control over his/her movement by individuals or group of people, or even movement at unusual hours;
  4.  worker living and working in poor conditions or non- existing health and safety standards;
  5. Paid less than minimum wage;
  6. Lack of suitable clothing or equipment;
  7. The particular person is working below his/her obvious level of ability;
  8. Little or no understanding of particular country’s language (e.g. English);
  9. Act as if instructed or coached by another person (e.g. allows others to talk for himself/herself or even fear to talk); etc.  

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have a negative financial impact towards many businesses and supply chains that in turn might result to the deliberate or indirect unwitting engagement with trafficked victims or modern slaves. At this moment informing consumers about their role and power is very essential for ending trafficked labour exploitation or similar practices. However, is up to consumers to decide if they wish to ignore the suffering of a fellow human being or whether it is time to act by making ethically conscious decisions, in order to make a change.  

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