New Zealand hit the headlines again this week. Not for its impressive results in containing the coronavirus, but for an audacious heist that was able to take place because of the unique conditions the country’s lockdown created. Closer to home, in the UK, you can barely log into your banking app without warnings about an increase in scams. As for that leaflet pushed through your door, offering to help with the shopping, you can’t help wondering whether it’s a phishing attempt - or just Maureen being a good Samaritan from two streets away.

Whilst much of society is doing good and working hard for others during the pandemic, circumstances are also unfortunately providing the ideal opportunity for criminal activity - and this includes modern slavery.

Lockdown brings particular challenges which are fuelling modern slavery concerns. The first is that certain business sectors, for example food manufacturing, deliveries and grocers, are experiencing an unseasonal spike and require temporary labour urgently. This presents opportunities for traffickers. Businesses need to ensure that their usual rigor remains in their recruitment processes, no matter how quickly people need to be sourced and onboarded.

In addition, where trusted suppliers have been forced to shut up shop, it is highly possible that new entrants who can seemingly take their place may not be all they seem to be. Again, it has never been more important to continue with the same compliance checks.

Closed borders between countries also creates a number of problems. Workers may now be stranded in a non-home country away from their usual support network and have lost their original job. Desperation for money to survive is likely to blunt people’s usual instincts and this is typically where workers can find themselves inadvertently duped into modern slavery. Lack of regulated, normal travel between countries also forces more people onto underground routes, and again into the clutches of criminal gangs.

Criminals will want victims working regardless of health issues, so victims of modern slavery who will probably be already more at risk (because of the cramped conditions they are usually held in) will be forced to work by traffickers even though they may be presenting with Covid-19 symptoms. 

Clearly many businesses are overloaded with decisions around how they will manage day to day operations during the coronavirus pandemic. Despite this, it is important that they continue to watch out for signs of modern slavery and that even though more people will be working remotely, or may be furloughed, there continues to be a clear escalation pathway that remains open for people with concerns.

In 2018, GRI took the decision to become founding members of the Slave Free Alliance in order to benefit from their expert support. Over the last two years we have worked with them to identify a programme of improvements to support our business in tackling the risks of slavery and exploitation and to pass on that guidance to our clients. 

Best practice should include:

  • Modern slavery leaflets being published multi-lingually and reporting pathways for concerns of modern slavery further promoted within your organisation
  • Refresher training on how to spot the signs on Modern Slavery. Now is exactly the time for this sort of training and it can be run remotely. As a reminder the signs of exploitation in victims vary from situation to situation however the following are indicators that are often found in cases of exploitation:

Physical appearance

Victims often look malnourished, unkempt, or appear withdrawn. They may show signs of physical injury as a result of an assault.

Few or no personal effects

No money, no personal possessions, few or unsuitable clothing, little or no food are all signs of forced labour.

Isolation and control

Victims often appear to be under the influence of someone. They may not be in possession of their legal or identity documents, share a bank account or address with a group of workers and be trafficked to and from their place of work.

Reluctant to seek help

Workers who are afraid of the authorities (police, immigration, the tax office) and refuse help when offered may be victims of modern slavery. They are often scared of removal or what might happen to their families. Experience shows that workers employed as temporary workers via recruitment agencies/labour providers/gangmasters are particularly at risk of being victims of modern slavery. Remember also that a worker could also be a trafficker. Questions that you should ask yourself are:

  1. Is there someone who appears to have some authority over other workers (perhaps with no official supervisory responsibility)?
  2. Does one individual always translate for other workers?
  3. Is there someone who appears keen to accompany other workers or to speak on their behalf?
  4. Have you noticed workers reacting oddly to a particular individual (eg. fearfully, anxiously, suddenly falling silent when they appear)

 

The point of contact for all modern slavery crimes should be the local police force. If you have information about modern slavery crimes – those who are committing such crimes or where victims are at risk that requires an immediate response dial 999.

You should also contact your local authority – they have the powers to notify the Home Office.

If you operate in a regulated sector, you can contact the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) on 0845 602 5020 or visit www.gla.gov.uk.

For more information, you can call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 0121 700, or visit www.gov.uk/government/collections/modern-slavery.

Please keep aware to the often hidden issue of Modern Slavery and remind your organisation that as the coronavirus thrives so will the dangers of worker exploitation.

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