Businesses in financial services and technology could be dangerously unaware of the rising risks of modern slavery in their supply chain

Companies could be unwittingly falling foul of anti-slavery laws as a result of the disruption caused by Covid-19, according to research from Dow Jones’s business information services division.

Human traffickers have responded to lockdowns by diverting their focus away from sex work towards forms of labour exploitation that are more likely to be part of company supply chains.

Distracted by the demands of the pandemic, many business leaders could be unaware of the rising risks. 

“We know from experience that slavery blooms in the dark, so a fall in reports about it rings alarm bells,” says Neil Giles, CEO of Traffik Analysis Hub. “It makes life much easier for traffickers if they can do their dirty work while no one’s looking.

”With governments, the media and companies all distracted by the pandemic, we strongly suspect modern slavery is actually as widespread as ever, if not more so.” 

Although the pandemic has diverted attention away from the issue, certain sectors are facing growing public scrutiny. Media coverage linking financial services firms with modern slavery has risen by 131 percent, while the technology sector has seen a 25 percent increase. 

Complacency about modern slavery poses legal and reputational risks for companies operating in countries like the UK and Australia, where they are required to demonstrate they have made efforts to eliminate slavery from their supply chains. 

Although the risks have increased, the Dow Jones research found that Covid-19 has taken media focus away from the slavery industry, which generates $150bn in illegal profits a year. News coverage of modern slavery incidents fell by 25 percent between January and June 2020 compared to the previous year. 

“Obviously, people should care about whether they’re participating in a global industry founded on capitalising on human misery,” says Ingrid Verschuren, head of Data Strategy at Dow Jones. “But modern slavery presents particular challenges when it comes to operating global supply chains, especially given the disruption created by Covid-19.

“Once headlines about the pandemic begin to recede, it will free up space for slavery to be back on the news agenda — and companies need to get ahead of the curve if they want to guarantee the integrity of their supply chains, and keep their names out of those headlines.”