Coronavirus risks making labour exploitation the 'new normal', U.N. warns

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments must act swiftly to ensure labour exploitation does not become the “new normal” as the coronavirus pandemic fuels abuses in sectors from tourism and agriculture to the sex trade, a United Nations expert warned on Thursday.

U.N. special rapporteur Maria Grazia Giammarinaro said the abuse of vulnerable workers - such as those deemed as essential - had increased “alarmingly” due to COVID-19, leaving many facing starvation and forced to accept exploitative conditions.

Human rights campaigners worldwide 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.

“Exploitation of desperate workers should never be the new normal,” Giammarinaro, the U.N.’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 U.N. 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 U.N. data.

Writing by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit