The corona pandemic triggered a wave of unemployment worldwide. Countries that rely heavily on tourism suffered severe economic damages. In Austria, attempts are being made to provide state financial aid for many industries. Whereas the situations in other parts of Europe and the world look much worse. People who live in countries with no functioning social system suffer heavily as they lose their livelihood when they lose their jobs. Mass unemployment increases the pressure on the labour market enormously. People are forced to take jobs that they would not have taken up under normal circumstances.
The danger of slipping into exploitative circumstances or becoming a victim of human trafficking increases.
CHILDREN ARE EXPOSED TO HIGH RISKS OF LONG-TERM DAMAGE
If the parents’ income is not enough to live on the children must help and are thereby forced to drop out of school. This can have major negative impacts for the entire following generation.
During the school closings in West Africa five years ago (due to the Ebola epidemic) an increase in child labour, sexual abuse and underage pregnancies was observed. Experts assume that after the corona pandemic many children will not be able to go back to school, as the economic consequences of this pandemic will be felt for a long time afterwards. However, education is an especially important factor in preventing human trafficking and labour exploitation.
THIS CRISIS SHOWS THE PROPORTION OF FOREIGN WORKERS IN MANY SECTORS
The effects of the pandemic on the low-wage sector were also felt by many Austrians. Due to border closings thousands of harvest workers, care workers and employees in the slaughter industry were not able to commute to their workplace during the first lockdown in spring. These are precisely the sectors in which cases of labour exploitation occur frequently. Such jobs with poor pay, long working hours, hard physical labour and poor health protection are unattractive for Austrian residents (which is why employers seek employees from other neighbouring countries). The Austrian financial police pointed out the ‘shockingly high number’ of wage dumping among foreign workers. The AMS, the major unemployment service in Austria, provided companies with additional funds as compensation for the lost hours due to short-time work. However, there were cases of wrongdoing uncovered that violated the regulations regarding these additional payments. For example, employees were officially supposed to only work 90 percent of their previous hours but had to continue working full-time.
Corona outbreaks occurred repeatedly in slaughterhouses. For that reason, the largest German companies and some in Austria had to be closed. Zoonotic diseases are a known danger in the slaughter industry in connection with the exploitation of animals. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on this industry has helped showcase the horrendous working conditions therein and fundamentally calls the necessity of these industries into question. Their employees are inadequately protected. The problem lies in a combination of the working conditions and the accommodation of the foreign workers. People who physically work 60 hours a week in the cool, humid indoor climate of slaughterhouses often have a weakened immune system and are not in the best physical condition. Zoonotic pathogens are daily companions in this industry. The foreign workers are also mostly housed in mass accommodation, which facilitates the spreading of diseases. The COVID-19 virus was able to spread unimpeded in shared bedrooms, which are set up in such a way that there is no distance between the bunk beds, and run-down sanitary facilities.
Due to the extensive media interest in and coverage of such slaughterhouses the broader population was made aware of the terrible conditions under which Eastern European workers had to live for weeks and months. The affected foreign workers take little part in public life and are therefore hardly noticed. Now, however, the popular media increasingly pointed out the grievances. It remains to be seen whether this was just a moment of attention that was given to such horrendous labour conditions or whether their situation and conditions will actually improve sustainably from that.
PEOPLE TRAPPED IN PROSTITUTION SUFFERED FROM THE CLOSURE OF THE BROTHELS
Women and men working in prostitution were also directly affected by the corona pandemic. The partial closure of the establishments hit them extremely hard. Not only did they lose their income, but often their housing as well. As a measure of self-preservation, they are forced to work and live illegally, thereby exposing themselves to further dangers and giving up any form of protection they had before. Visiting private homes or providing their services on the street place those affected in a vulnerable position. Without any regulation or protective authorities those affected are exposed to higher risks of being mistreated, raped or infected with the coronavirus.
We understand that many of the political measures had to be implemented quickly to prevent the spreading of the coronavirus. Nevertheless, it must now be critically questioned how, in the second wave of the pandemic, people can be better protected from labour exploitation and human trafficking. The crisis shows how important it is to help those affected by exploitation to find an alternative perspective. The work of HOPE FOR THE FUTURE is more important than ever, but we also depend on support to be able to help the survivors of human trafficking during and after the crisis.
Translated by Sophie Kitchen