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OPINION: COVID exacerbated modern slavery - and offers a chance to end it

Friday, 25 June 2021 10:07 GMT

Delivering a Common Future to Eradicate Modern Slavery, CHRI and Walk Free Virtual High-Level Dialogue from London is shown in this handout picture from CHRI via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

No country is free from slavery, and it is the responsibility of all governments to take action to fulfill their commitments to combat modern slavery and protect those who are most vulnerable

By Sneh Aurora, Director, London office, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Katharine Bryant, Lead of European Engagement, Walk Free

One in every 150 people in the Commonwealth is living in modern slavery.

This translates to 15.7 million human beings subjected to the most abhorrent human rights violations and abuses, across 54 nations.

This includes children in domestic servitude forced to work long hours with limited opportunities to attend school. It includes migrant workers trapped in debt bondage by exorbitant recruitment fees, forced to live in crowded unhygienic dormitories. It includes girls forced into early marriage who face sexual abuse, domestic servitude, and violence.

No country is free from slavery, and it is the responsibility of all governments to take action to fulfill their commitments to combat modern slavery and protect those who are most vulnerable.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was scheduled to take place this weekend – a forum for leaders of 54 Commonwealth countries to review international political and economic developments and collaborate on political commitments.

However, due to the ongoing risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, this important platform has been delayed for the second time.

Despite the postponement of CHOGM, leaders agree that progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Target 8.7, “taking immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking”, should not be delayed.


Building on the release of the joint report, ‘Eradicating Modern Slavery: An assessment of Commonwealth Governments’ progress on achieving SDG Target 8.7, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Walk Free organised high level dialogues in Canberra, Australia and London, UK.

These dialogues brought together former British Prime Minister, Theresa May; UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton; President of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Nazhat Shameem Khan; senior government officials, and other prominent figures, and encouraged the sharing of good practice and concrete plans to fulfil commitments set out in the 2018 CHOGM Communiqué.


The COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and risks of exploitation. Causes of increased vulnerability include:

  • rise in extreme poverty and inequality
  • disruption of migration flows
  • lack of safe employment
  • reduced government resources
  • barriers to victims seeking support
  • rising rates of domestic violence
  • increased child labour in rural areas

These circumstances create the perfect conditions for modern slavery to thrive. Indeed it is such a dire situation that specialists such as Jennifer Townson, migration and modern slavery envoy at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, fear that “the progress that we have been making as a global community over recent years has the potential to be put back 20 years as a result of the pandemic”.

Despite these serious concerns, the pandemic offers an opportunity to reassess existing systems to better promote the eradication of modern slavery. May advised, “as we build back and recover from the COVID pandemic, we need to ensure that we consider the impact it has had on modern slavery and human trafficking”.

Yet, our research shows that Commonwealth States are lagging in their efforts to eradicate modern slavery. More needs to be done to ensure that the Commonwealth meets its SDG Targets.

Key challenges include the need to enhance financial investigations, facilitate sufficient access to justice, and provide migrant workers with access to healthcare and assistance free from the risk of detention or deportation, said Khan.


Anti-modern slavery strategies need to be survivor-inclusive, says Francisca Awah Mbuli, founder of the Survivors’ Network Cameroon and a member of the Commonwealth 8.7 Network. “Survivors need to be part of policy making, and also protected as survivors. They have first-hand experience that should be utilised.’’

Looking to the future, numerous Commonwealth States committed to increase their efforts to eradicate modern slavery. Fiji pledged to develop “a new policy for the eradication of child labour” and intends to uphold this pledge and other anti-slavery efforts in the face of the huge challenges to Small Island States presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UK aspires to continue working with partners on the root causes of modern slavery. Despite its many challenges, Dame Sara Thornton said that “Brexit offers an opportunity as the UK develops new trade agreements to include the protection of human rights, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

While there are signs of progress, States need to take urgent action to ensure the realisation of SDG Target 8.7 by 2030. Cooperation between States, civil society and other actors is critical, as no single entity can effectively fight modern slavery alone.

May highlighted the global leadership role of the Commonwealth, which “can come together and make a real impact. By showing our actions as a Commonwealth, we could help to lead the world in dealing with these issues of modern slavery."

Despite the postponement of key political meetings such as CHOGM, governments can no longer claim ignorance to the realities of modern slavery – they can choose to either be part of the problem or part of the solution.