Renowned international human trafficking expert, Mekong Club CEO Matt Friedman discusses how the impact of COVID-19 may severely impact global supply chains within the next six months, and as a result, human trafficking may spike as traffickers seek to take advantage of mass-layoffs among societies’ most vulnerable – the working poor.
By Matthew Friedman
The COVID-19 outbreak in January 2020 is now a global pandemic, with nearly 860,000 cases detected in over 180 countries and over 42,322 deaths globally as of 1 April 2020. The entire world has recently announced draconian measures in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Much of the world is on lockdown mode.
This outbreak is affecting many businesses and sectors in different ways. The manufacturing industry has seen disruption in several parts of its supply chains and business operations. This poses a number of challenges. Some limited to moving activities online, others much more serious and related to the sustainability and profitability of business in the short, medium and long-term.
While corporate professionals go through a major experiment of tele-working, supply chain workers, directly employed by companies or by suppliers and sub-suppliers, are facing even bigger challenges. There is no doubt that the Covid-19 poses a higher risk to their wellbeing, job security, and rights.
The Mekong Club is working with companies in its network to support and advise them to ensure that, during these difficult times, workers’ human rights and health and safety remains paramount and modern slavery and labour exploitation risk is avoided or promptly addressed.
To help mitigate against potential human exploitation, we are advising the global business community to consider implementing the below recommendations:
State your position
As a brand, consider what implications the Covid-19 outbreak could have on your supply chains and develop a statement or policy that aims at addressing this scenario.
Use this brief as a template to model your Covid-19-related supplier policy. Communicate it to your suppliers and initiate a dialogue with them. A transparent conversation is the best way to learn if there is any worrying sign that you should know of.
Debt Bondage Vulnerability
As workers are told to stay home, often resulting in the absence of a pay check, the possibility of an indebted state increases.
If factories offer to lend money to their employees, this could lead to the possibility of a debt bondage situation taking place. It is important to understand the terms and conditions of these arrangements to ensure that this doesn’t force a person to remain in a factory situation against their will.
Employment is freely chosen
Imposing fees or penalty for leaving employment is an indicator of labour exploitation and should not be permitted under normal circumstances. However, there have been cases of workers who seek to leave their employment under the Covid-19 outbreak. These workers should be compensated for any service provided up to their leave day.
In some extreme cases, workers who were worried about their safety in the agriculture sector in China, were imposed an ultimatum to either stay at their own risk or leave and lose their job and payment.
Freedom of movement
Suppliers may decide to implement new measures to protect workers from being exposed to this virus. In some cases, this might include restricting workers’ freedom of movement: for example, workers may be requested to not leave the factory compound, to not assemble in common areas in large groups, to take turns using the canteen, or to keep distance from one another.
These measures should be transparently disclosed by the suppliers to the brands they work with and considered as exceptional measures given the unique circumstances.
In no circumstances should passports be retained to avoid workers’ movement and no financial penalty or wage deduction should be imposed on workers who are violating these rules.
As companies eventually re-open manufacturing operations, there will be high pressure for workers to intensify production rates to cover for months of inactivity, thus requesting them to work overtime.
Overtime work should always be tracked by the factory, appropriately remunerated and freely chosen by the worker.
Keep the workforce informed
Workers may not have a clear picture about the global Covid-19 phenomenon. They may be accessing broadcasted news in their own language only and if they are not able to access the internet, they may rely on bits of information provided by colleagues, family and friends, which increases the possibility of being misinformed.
In some cases, workers may not have a sufficient level of education to understand the complexity of the situation. This could lead to fighting back on new measures imposed by their employers or to inadvertently pose risk to their or others’ health.
Suppliers should, as a consequence, develop and start implementing training on the CoVid-19 immediately. Particular emphasis needs to be put on the importance of self-hygiene and social-distancing. This information should be promptly translated into migrant workers’ languages. Simple but frequent updates on virus cases in the relevant country/region would help keep the workers informed.
No discrimination should be permitted when implementing new measures, and it should apply to the whole of the workforce unless there is a demonstrable, reasonable explanation to such exceptions. For example, employees that have come from virus affected areas should not be discriminated against through this association.
If there are new measures imposed on workers as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak (e.g. extended hours, required quarantine for workers who appear ill, etc), it is recommended, after appropriate training, to obtain a signed consent form from the workers where they agree to such measures.
It is good practice to introduce a start date and an end date with the possibility of extension.
Protect contract workers
Contractors (e.g. canteen staff, security personnel, cleaners, etc) are usually less protected than permanent employees when it comes to things such as paid sick leave and paid annual leave. Even more at stake, is their job security.
Companies can re-purpose some of these contractors’ tasks to ensure they stay employed. For example, if the canteen is closed to avoid large gatherings, kitchen/canteen staff could cover extra turns to clean and disinfect working equipment or for temperature-taking and recording.
Maintaining high hygiene standard
Ensure soap and running water are available in every toilet and in the dormitories and canteen. Procure and provide hand sanitizer dispensers in places where there is a high chance of hand-to-face contact. Provide masks to workers and bins to dispose of them.
Workers may be unable to come to work because they need to be quarantined or live with someone who is sick or confined to their home. In the case of factory work, it is very hard to implement any type of online work replacement.
Employers should inform workers of what alternative arrangements may be possible. For example, the quarantine or part of it can be offset by the workers’ paid leave, to ensure the worker can receive an income. This will lessen risk of workers becoming indebted. This is particularly important for migrant workers sending remittances home and having families depending on them.
Encourage illness disclosure
Workers may fear losing their job and may lie on their health conditions, thus posing a risk to others. Employers should reassure workers that they should report if they are sick and they will not be fired or repatriated, especially in the case of migrant workers.
These are very trying times. Many changes will result from the Covid-19 crisis. While it will clearly not be “business as usual” for a long time. Ensuring that human rights and ethics are in place should continue to be a priority.
(Ed. Mekong Club CEO Matthew Friedman is a humanitarian professional who was formerly employed by the United Nations and the US Government, and has lived and worked in more than 40 countries. Friedman is also founder of the Be the Hero Campaign and argues that if those who work on the world’s problems could solve them, they would. To this end, Friedman says the collective actions of ordinary people have the greatest chance of effecting transformative outcomes. His clarion call is this: identify a cause that you are passionate about, accept responsibility for it, surrender, and then step up to get involved. You can buy his latest book dishing out sage advice on how we can all roll up our sleeves and play our part, Be the Hero: Be the Change All proceeds will go to addressing COVID-19 responses.)