Editor’s Note: Timothy Patrick McCarthy teaches at Harvard University, where he is Core Faculty at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. He is also board chair for Free the Slaves, a non-profit that works to change the conditions that allow modern slavery to exist. Anesa “Nes” Parker is a senior manager at Deloitte Consulting as well as a Free the Slaves and Survivor Alliance board member. Nahal Jalali-Farahani is a manager at Deloitte Consulting and a passionate advocate for the role of culture and creativity in advancing social justice. Alisha Malkani is a senior at Monitor Institute by Deloitte, and her work is driven by the intersection of private and public sector engagement and social change. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
The future of work stands at a challenging crossroads. Along with millions of lives, the Covid-19 pandemic has also stolen livelihoods. According to the International Labour Organization, the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs were lost globally in 2020. That’s $3.7 trillion in lost labor income.
These losses are most deeply felt on the human level by those who were already vulnerable before the pandemic hit, and the ripple effects are profound. Covid has placed into sharp relief the pre-existing inequities and injustices in our world.
To imagine what the future of work can and should look like, we need to think creatively and strategically about how to support people looking to enter or re-enter the workforce. It is also critical that we extend these recovery efforts beyond more visible groups to include those who are left behind even in the best of times, including victims and survivors of human trafficking and modern-day slavery.
The pandemic has had widespread economic impacts, with an unprecedented peak unemployment rate of 14.8% in April 2020 in the United States, a trend that has disproportionately impacted women, racial and ethnic minority communities, and other vulnerable populations.
Many already live paycheck to paycheck, and job instability coupled with insufficient social provisions can have devastating effects that far too often lead to food and housing insecurity, and other forms of material inequity. It should be clear now that economic justice – the notion that financial systems can advance equity and human dignity – is a vital component of our public health and personal well-being.
An inclusive workforce
Almost two years ago, Deloitte partnered with American University to host a symposium called “Building an Inclusive Workforce of the Future.” The event explored potential impacts and opportunities for marginalized populations – including survivors of human trafficking – in the future of work.
The symposium resulted in a report showing that employers benefit from diversifying their workforce and creating dignified work opportunities for marginalized groups. The paper cites key barriers to employment, such as accessibility, digital literacy, health and trauma, and financial constraints that must be considered when preparing marginalized populations for the work of the future.
Covid-19 has simultaneously exacerbated challenges and accelerated the speed at which anticipated trends in the future of work are becoming reality. It is more critical now than ever before that employers partner and collaborate with civil society organizations to break down these barriers and generate pathways to dignified work.
Survivors and victims of human trafficking are hit especially hard by economic downturns. Human trafficking, at its core, is a crime of exploitation and extraction, both of which thrive in moments of crisis and disruption. It is no surprise that human trafficking is becoming simultaneously more prevalent and less visible during this time. Reversing this trend will take the combined efforts of the private, public, and social sectors.
Innovative service providers, like tech company AnnieCannons, have long noted that the key to preventing and combating human trafficking is economic justice. In many cases, individuals are vulnerable to exploitation in the first place because they lack access to economic stability and dignified work opportunities.
‘A dignified approach to hiring survivors’
Though too early to know its full impacts, frontline organizations, including Free the Slaves, a non-profit that works to build community-level resistance and resilience to modern slavery, have observed that Covid-19 has amplified the dynamics that enable the exploitation of persons and has caused trafficking to go further underground, limiting the opportunity for service providers to intervene. Medical providers have been understandably overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients, and their time and attention diverted from identifying potential trafficking cases. Furthermore, as economic uncertainty causes individuals to lose their jobs and experience financial stress, vulnerability to exploitation and extraction increases.
Survivors who come out of trafficking situations often lack the opportunity to develop the skills, acquire the credentials, and build the network necessary to secure a job that offers stability and mobility.
Covid-19 is over-burdening service providers and resulting in a specific reduction in critical in-person care. Successfully recovering and rebuilding after trauma is a complex and delicate process that requires a combination of factors like housing, childcare, physical and mental health and employment to be in place. Organizations, governments and systems are being pushed to their limits, providing traffickers with new opportunities for their exploitation.
As securing employment becomes more precarious, finding employers who bring a dignified and trauma-informed approach to hiring survivors is even more rare. Even survivors who are currently employed may lack the social and emotional support they need to heal and thrive.
Though these are complex challenges, as long as economic justice is core to the solution, employers have a critical role to play in shaping dignified work opportunities. Increasingly, many employers are looking for ways to actualize their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. One way to do this is to build and sustain more expansive structures of support – livable wages, skills training and professional development opportunities, physical and mental health care and the like – that will help survivors of human trafficking to thrive in the workplaces of the future.
We are in a moment of unprecedented change. From a rapid restructuring of the way we work to a global reckoning with issues of systemic racism, gender inequality and economic injustice, this is precisely the moment to re-imagine and create a different kind of future. We still face many unknowns, but we cannot simply return to the way things were in a world that enslaved tens of millions of people. If the future of work is to be equitable and just, it must include all workers.