COVID-19 fuels labour abuses to become the ‘new normal’, UN expert warns

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Governments must act quickly to ensure labour exploitation does not become the “new normal” as the coronavirus pandemic fuels abuses against vulnerable workers, a UN special rapporteur warned.

Special rapporteur Maria Grazia Giammarinaro said on Thursday the abuse of vulnerable workers in sectors from tourism and agriculture to the sex trade had increased “alarmingly” due to COVID-19.

Human rights campaigners have warned of a rollback of workers’ rights as the fallout of coronavirus – from lockdowns and business closures to shut borders – means more people competing for fewer jobs on worse terms and less pay.

These leave many workers facing starvation and are therefore forced to accept exploitative conditions in order to survive.

“Exploitation of desperate workers should never be the new normal,” Giammarinaro, the UN’s official on trafficking said in a statement to mark World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.

The Italian judge said children in emergency situations were at heightened risk of child labour while women trafficked into the sex trade had been subjected to more extreme exploitation.

Giammarinaro urged nations to go beyond law enforcement when tackling trafficking and adopt a broader human rights approach.

“I’m convinced that a true shift is needed in the prevention of and fight against trafficking, which should be genuinely inspired by a human rights agenda to be really effective,” said Giammarinaro, who will leave her UN position next month.

Among her recommendations, she said states and businesses should be obliged to carry out due diligence in their supply chains and called for firewalls between social services, labour inspections, judicial procedures and immigration enforcement.

Giammarinaro also said victims of trafficking must be allowed to appeal decisions on residence status and state aid, and should not be punished for crimes committed under duress.

In April, she said undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and trafficking victims worldwide should be granted access to healthcare and welfare – regardless of their legal status – to protect them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several experts told the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week that human trafficking must not fall off the agenda when tackling COVID-19 as more people were vulnerable to abuse.

About 25 million people worldwide are estimated to be victims of forced labour, according to the latest UN data. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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