Dr Alicia Kidd
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
Humber Modern Slavery Partnership and the Wilberforce Institute
Through our associations with modern slavery partnerships and front-line practitioners across the country, we have been able to access some of the direct observations that have been made regarding the impact that Covid-19 has been having on vulnerable populations. It is key to note that many of these experiences will not be caused entirely by Covid-19, but will be a result of an amalgamation of the impacts of the disease, coupled with wider political, economic and societal structures that tend to most significantly impact those in lower socio-economic groups.
Impact on modern slavery support services
The government has announced that anyone in National Referral Mechanism (NRM) safehousing will not be required to leave the safehouse for three months in light of the heightened risk they would face as a result of Covid-19. The modern slavery helpline and Salvation Army referral line remain open and it is still possible to refer people to the NRM in the current climate.
However, Covid-19 has put significant strain on a large proportion of first responder organisations, victim care contract providers and third sector organisations who support victims of modern slavery. This has led to reduced services, furloughed staff and a closure of drop-in centres, making it much more difficult to offer direct support to those who need it. Face-to face visits are now only made on very rare occasions, with support workers remaining at a safe distance from the clients, and most check-ins are conducted over the phone. Many clients rely on gas and electricity cards which have to be topped up at shops. With many of these shops now shut, clients are unable to top up their cards and are faced with limited gas and electricity supplies.
Counselling and support services have decreased, as have the number of staff able to work simultaneously in safehouses, meaning an increase in lone working. This is to the detriment of victims and survivors, as well as to those working to support them.
Impact on work
We are identifying that in light of Covid-19, low paid workers are being sacked rather than receiving statutory sick pay. The closure of restaurants, carwashes and nail bars is also resulting in the eviction of workers from their accommodation. These workers are then reporting as homeless, which is pushing them into desperate situations in order to find work to be able to survive, therefore increasing their risk of exploitation. Coupled with this risk is the reduction in labour regulation inspections as a result of social distancing, meaning there are fewer checks to ensure worker welfare. We are also aware that exploitative labour has moved away from those businesses that have shut as a result of Covid-19 and is now moving into agriculture and packing which are getting busier. Soup kitchens have been identified as locations for labour force recruitment and county lines dealing.
Agencies supporting sex workers are reporting that, while the paying for sex has reduced as a result of social distancing, workers are now predominantly moving on to webcam work. Some of the workers have no recourse to public funds, no job security and now no income source.
Impact on those with substance misuse issues
As a result of Covid-19, extremely vulnerable cohorts have faced real difficulties in obtaining prescriptions for methadone, etc. Those who are struggling are finding supplies of alternative drugs to use in place of these and, as a result, are vulnerable to dealers, drug debts and unsafe substances. Drug users who are isolated, who may be substituting drugs and subsequently overdosing and becoming unwell, have less access to emergency care because of isolation and a lack of ability to contact those who can help. The Wilberforce Institute and local partners have already identified that there has been an increase in known drug users dying alone whilst isolated from their support networks as a result of Covid-19.
Some support agencies are reporting an increase in clients’ alcohol consumption, with a correlated increase in aggression by clients, both towards other clients and towards support staff. There has also been an increase in self-harm and suicide attempts.