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Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women

Human Rights
at home, abroad and on the way...


Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women

Human Rights
at home, abroad and on the way...

Events and News

A Feast in Time of COVID-19: The anti-trafficking movement needs to take a step back

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About two weeks ago, in mid-March, one of our colleagues received a message from a Thai journalist asking “Do you think that sex workers will be more vulnerable to trafficking now that the Thai government ordered all entertainment places shut?” In our office WhatsApp chat group, we joked “Well, this [linking COVID-19 to trafficking] didn’t take long”.

And we were right. Since then, we’ve seen several more articles, blogs and commentaries on how the current pandemic and its aftermath will lead to an increased risk for trafficking and “modern slavery”. To be clear: they most certainly will. There is no need to summarise the news that we are all painfully aware of, showing how the vast majority of the world’s workforce (basically, anyone who doesn’t have all of the following: computer, home and a contract allowing them work from home on said computer – and/or savings) is left without their regular income. Or how lack of income and social safety nets push people into accepting exploitative work arrangements.

Yet, it somehow feels disingenuous to be concerned with trafficking right now. Consider this quote from a daily wage labourer in India published in the Guardian: “If the coronavirus doesn’t kill me, hunger will.” A very simple, straightforward statement that is probably shared by billions of people. What could the anti-trafficking (or “modern slavery”) framework offer this man? Raise his awareness of human trafficking and unsafe migration? Arrest and prosecute a man who would offer him work that pays below minimum wage, but still pays something? Or enrol him in a skills training programme that may end, some day but not today, with a small grant to start his own business? Let’s be serious!

Linking the widespread disruption of lives and livelihoods to trafficking and “modern slavery” seems awfully opportunistic and self-serving. It sows the seed for increased funding and resources for precisely these issues, once the immediate crisis is over. In other words, in the midst of the pandemic, some in the anti-trafficking movement are preparing for the feast of awareness-raising campaigns, safe migration initiatives, multi-stakeholder conferences, and rehabilitation programmes that are to follow.

GAATW has always urged a broader perspective of trafficking – one that takes into account wider structural socio-economic issues. Now the crisis has laid these issues bare in a way that is impossible to ignore:

  • Public services and social safety nets, such as healthcare, unemployment benefits, or old-age pension have been decimated by decades of privatisation and austerity measures. Hospitals around the world are overcrowded, medical personnel are overworked, and the costs of treatment are punishingly high for many, if not most, people.
  • The vast majority of people globally work in precarious employment, whether informal work, daily-wage work or subsistence farming, without contracts and access to social support schemes. Now that they are told to stay at home, or self-quarantine, they are scrambling to make ends meet. The cash payments offered by many governments, laudable as they are, are awfully inadequate, whether the monthly amount is 1,200 dollars in the US, 5,000 baht in Thailand, or 3,000 rupees in India.
  • Women continue to do most of the unpaid care work, such as cooking, cleaning, child and elderly care. We heard from so many female colleagues, and that is those who are privileged enough to be working from home, that they work doubly – their regular work from home and care for the children who are not going to school.
  • Related to that, we also read about reports of an increase in domestic violence against women and children by men who are conditioned by patriarchy that they are the “boss” in the family.
  • Racist and xenophobic attitudes towards migrants are wide-spread, as we see suspicion and violence towards Asian migrants in the West but also, with the progress of the disease westwards, towards Caucasians in Asia.
  • Obscene levels of income inequality where the rich are weathering the storm in bunkers while the poor live in overcrowded slums and the rich get tested while the poor die in the streets. In all likelihood, the largest share of the trillions of dollars that governments are now preparing to fight the economic impact of the pandemic, will go to companies’ CEOs, CFOs and shareholders and not to workers – just as during the previous economic crisis.
  • The climate crisis may have slowed down because of the widespread shutdown of economic activity but is likely to return with a vengeance once the pandemic eases.

All of these issues – failing public services and lacking social protections, the precarisation of work, gender-based violence and the non-recognition of unpaid care work, racism and xenophobia, wealth inequality, the climate crisis (among others!) – are well documented in GAATW’s research among migrants and trafficked persons. But they are also widely accepted as the root causes of human trafficking and “modern slavery”. Yet, with few exceptions, they are conspicuously absent from the articles, blogs and commentaries linking COVID-19 to trafficking.

In this moment, widely seen as unprecedented, the anti-trafficking movement needs to take a step back and, for once, not make it about trafficking or “modern slavery”. We urge our friends and colleagues in the movement to join other feminist and social justice movements and demand, now and in the aftermath of this crisis:

  • Accessible and affordable public services, such as healthcare, child and elderly care, and social protection floors for all, including migrants regardless of status. These services should be in public control and funded through taxes.
  • Progressive taxation for high-earners, higher property tax, end to tax incentives for corporates and illicit financial flows, tax avoidance and evasion.
  • Introduction and enforcement of labour regulations in all economic sectors, increased investment in labour inspections, and an end to union-busting.
  • Punishment of xenophobic speech towards migrants, including in the media and by politicians, and promotion of accurate information about migrants and migration.
  • Recognition, valuation and redistribution of unpaid care work and promotion of gender equality and a culture of non-violence.
  • Urgent attention to the climate crisis, including through divestment from fossil fuel industries and investment in green economies.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Our point is that the pandemic has exposed the failings of the global economic model, which favours the rich, rejects regulation and taxation, and relies on cheap, controllable and exploitable labour.

The healthcare crisis will pass, and will likely be followed by an economic one. The anti-trafficking movement needs to look beyond its comfortable silo and join the growing demands for a system change. Anything else will only be self-serving, like a feast in time of COVID-19.