The Anti-Slavery Collective in Conversation with Walk Free

WFH conversations Walk Free

Our co-founders HRH Princess Eugenie of York and Julia de Boinville are thrilled to speak to Walk Free about their recent report, Protecting People in a Pandemic. Grace Forrest is a Founding Director and Communication Strategist of Walk Free and a UN Goodwill Ambassador for anti-slavery. Serena Grant is the Business and Engagement Lead of Walk Free and the author of their report. 

Protecting People in a Pandemic debunks the common misconception that this pandemic is the “great equaliser.” Although the virus can infect anyone, it disproportionately affects those who are already most vulnerable. The report highlights how the exclusion of migrant and other vulnerable workers from access to testing, healthcare and financial support is seriously increasing risks of human rights violations and also of COVID-19 spreading further. It also provides a practical guide on how government and business can mitigate these risks. In so doing, the report seeks to put the protection of vulnerable workers at the forefront of COVID-19 responses. 

As COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the terrible injustices that are usually overlooked, Grace and Serena believe that now is the opportunity to implement systemic change. We must ensure that, when we rebuild from the pandemic, governments and business do not revert to the standard practices of forsaking and exploiting the world’s most vulnerable. As citizens and consumers, Grace emphasises that we have both the power and responsibility to ensure this. 

The risks to vulnerable workers

As Grace says, the most vulnerable always take the hardest hit in any kind of crisis. Protecting People in a Pandemic examines the various key risks to vulnerable workers presented by the pandemic. Walk Free have summarised these risks in this video:

The very concerning health risks are compounded by the devastating economic effects of mass unemployment and lack of opportunities. Most vulnerable workers do not have savings or safety nets. Many migrant workers take on huge debts as part of their recruitment process. As a result, many workers and their families cannot afford food, water or shelter. As Walk Free make clear, these desperate conditions both create “the perfect storm for exploitation, forced labour and other forms of modern slavery to flourish” and threaten the lives of many. 

Serena relates some worrying and underreported stories of the vulnerable situations of migrants at this time: 

Construction workers in Qatar

Amnesty International reported that migrant workers comprise 90% of Qatar’s workforce. These workers come under kafala, a ‘sponsorship’ system that can facilitate forced labour. Reports of exploitation of these workers were widespread before the pandemic, but the COVID-19 lockdown has created new concerns. The Guardian reported that Qatar’s largest labour camp for migrants has become a ‘virtual prison.’ Migrant workers are confined to packed, unsanitary accommodation. Some, despite testing positive for COVID-19, are still forced to work.

Fishermen in India

Every year, workers migrate from states across India such as Maharashtra, Andra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to Gujarat in search of employment. The fishing season was due to end in March but Al Jazeera has reported that, due to the lockdown, nearly 25,000 fishermen have been stranded on cramped boats with inadequate supplies since 24th March. 

What can business and government do? 

It is necessary to realise that COVID-19 has not only created health and economic crises, but also a humanitarian crisis. Business and government must respond accordingly. Protecting People in a Pandemic provides practical measures that business and government can take to address the specific risks that the pandemic poses to vulnerable workers and to uphold fundamental human rights. As Serena emphasises, collaboration, communication and innovation are crucial in mitigating these risks. 

Walk Free calls on business and government leaders to act urgently and collaboratively to address risks to vulnerable workers and protect lives. Whether that is migrant workers stranded without means to support themselves, or crews on vessels prevented from accessing basic supplies in port – we must put human rights and human lives first.

Protecting People in a Pandemic, Walk Free

Serena and Grace explain that it is in the interest of business and government to protect migrant and vulnerable workers. This is from not only a human rights perspective, but also an economic perspective. Migrant workers should be valued not only as human beings who are entitled to fundamental rights, but also as essential workers in supply chains and key contributors to their country’s GDP. As the economies start to reopen, both business and government will need these workers. Business and government ought to support these workers in their time of need to ensure that these workers are there when they are needed.

European Union

Myanmar sells 70% of its garment exports to Europe. As of the end of March, over 25,000 garment workers from more than 40 factories had been laid off. It is estimated that half of the 700,000 of these predominantly female garment industry workers are at great risk of being suspended without pay or losing the jobs. Serena tells us how the European Union, recognising the dependence of the Myanmar garment industry on Europe, has created a €5 million emergency cash fund to support thousands of Myanmar garment workers who have lost their jobs. This is an encouraging example of government protecting vulnerable workers that must be replicated. 

What can you do? 

Grace emphasises that as consumers we have the power and responsibility to put pressure on business. It is important to ask questions to and demand answers from your favourite brands. Fashion Revolution has created useful templates for you to email and tag brands to find out who made their clothes and how they are protecting the people working in their supply chain. 

If we put the pressure on, and if we ask these questions, it can lead to tangible change for vulnerable people on every level  of the supply chain.

Grace Forrest

Global fashion brands, including Primark, cancelled orders in response to the pandemic. As a result of this, garment workers all over the world took pay cuts or lost their jobs. These workers are now facing poverty, displacement, and desperation. As a result of public outrage, Primark has now set up a wage fund to pay the wages of the millions of workers linked to the orders that were due for shipment in the month after they were cancelled. Whilst there is still much more that this brand can do to support their workers during this crisis, it is a clear example of the power of consumer pressure. 

Read more about what you can do in our recent post, 6 ways you can fight modern slavery from home.

Walk Free 

Walk Free is an international human rights group with the mission to end slavery in our generation through a strong, multi-faceted approach. This includes building a robust knowledge base to inform action, driving legislative change in key countries and harnessing the power of businesses and faiths. Through a combination of direct implementation, grassroots community engagement, and working in partnership with faiths, businesses, academics, NGOs, and governments around the world; the Walk Free Foundation believes we can end modern slavery. 

They are the producers of the Global Slavery Index, which develops world leading research to provide measurement of the size and scale of modern slavery, as well as assess country-level vulnerability and governmental responses.

What do you think?