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How coronavirus may increase labor exploitation

Over the past few months, Coloradans have had unlimited opportunities to reflect on how we will respond to the COVID-19 crisis in the months ahead. The stressed economy is forcing people to think about their businesses differently – and one thing that should be top of mind is labor exploitation. Business leaders can make a difference by understanding the root causes of labor exploitation and how it can manifest in Colorado’s industries.

Vulnerable populations during COVID-19

We know that the populations most vulnerable to exploitation are those who have experienced the trauma that accompanies poverty, discrimination and stigma. For those already living on the margins, violence and exploitation are a part of daily life. Under the economic strain of a historic pandemic, it would be safe to assume that already vulnerable populations are facing a perfect storm. But, we don’t need to assume. Preliminary reports of increased exploitation are surfacing from across the globe.

Human trafficking is a severe form of exploitation for labor through the use of force, fraud or coercion. In Colorado, all genders in all age groups from more than 50 countries, including the U.S., have been identified as survivors. The increased cost of living in Colorado has resulted in a disproportionately large number of people experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness. Much of the state is used for agriculture, ranching and hospitality, necessitating seasonal and migrant workers; and there is seemingly endless construction development to support population growth. While these circumstances may result in the exploitation of vulnerable populations, COVID 19 has exacerbated many of these vulnerabilities and added to economic uncertainty.

While we are understandably preoccupied with our own well-being and that of our family and friends, trafficking victims are falling through the cracks. So who is a trafficking victim and how do we start to understand how to prevent exploitation in our supply chains?

Low-wage earners

Workers with low-wage jobs in the formal or informal economy are at greater risk for exploitation as their primary concern is survival. Fear of losing a job is a major deterrent to reporting abuse or unsafe working conditions. Many workers are willing to endure exploitation and abuse in order to continue to receive money during unpredictable times. Those who spend most of their income on basic necessities are also much less likely to have the savings to endure unexpected economic shocks.

Perhaps predictably, many of these low-wage workers are considered “essential” during this crisis including in industries like construction, manufacturing, agriculture, child care and retail settings like grocery stores. Because of the nature of their situations, these individuals have little choice but to put themselves at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 for little pay in order to continue to support their families.

The scarcity of jobs means that unscrupulous employers can leverage their power in this crisis in order to save money. As human trafficking professionals, we commonly see this type of rationalization: “They should be grateful for the work, I don’t have to pay overtime or provide required safety equipment.”

“Essential” low-wage workers become expendable when 33 million people are desperate for work. We have now witnessed whistleblowers fired for voicing concerns in multi-billion dollar companies, so we can safely assume similar retribution is occurring in low-wage work, but without the publicity.

For those who are undocumented, the situation is even more dire. Research has found that many undocumented workers do not report when they experience abuse and exploitation for fear that seeking help will lead to deportation. The pandemic has amplified existing systemic abuse by restricting movement due to border closures and increased stigmatization due to nativist politics. COVID 19 has allowed employers to limit workers’ basic human rights in the name of safety for workers and stopping the virus.

What business leaders can do

While nobody can predict the long term impact of coronavirus on the Colorado business landscape, there are important actions which can be taken today to ensure increased exploitation doesn’t become a reality. Here are four things you can do right now:

  • Expand your definition of human trafficking. Make sure it includes diverse experiences and identities. Visit the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking website to learn more about trafficking in Colorado.
  • Don’t look the other way. Understand the laws in place to protect workers. Be on the lookout for exploitation in your industry.
  • Report tips and help survivors access resources. Do you suspect trafficking? Employ a survivor? Connect with a human trafficking expert at Colorado’s Human Trafficking Hotline.
  • Get Trained. If you would like to schedule a training for your staff or leadership, submit a training request here.

Business leaders have the opportunity to lead on this issue by exemplifying the human rights standards that have historically set the U.S. apart. Together, we can advance anti-trafficking as the Colorado economy reemerges.