Covid-19 and Modern Slavery: A Research Response


Covid-19 represents a large and sudden exogenous shock to the world. The pandemic itself and the measures being undertaken to slow its pace and effect have short, medium and long term impacts on the problem of modern slavery. We have formulated research approaches to understanding and responding to the effects of the pandemic on some of the world’s most vulnerable people. This represents an early-stage research agenda for anti-slavery responses to Covid-19, and a call for a coordinated, systematic and inter-disciplinary research effort.

We mapped potential research responses across the short, medium and long term, and across the three main themes laid out in another early response: “The Impact of Covid-19 on Modern Slavery” (March 27, 2020) by James Cockayne and Angharad Smith for Delta 8.7, a project of the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research (a Rights Lab partner).

In suggesting potential questions, this agenda tries to formulate a research response that can contribute to the understanding of, and response to, the Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts for modern slavery, including by supporting the design, development and adoption of new policies and interventions, and by gathering critical data and resources quickly for future research use. The research agenda includes questions about modern slavery in the UK and globally.

Although this is a response from modern slavery researchers rather than from frontline professionals, we focus on work that could help policy-makers and service-providers address the multi-faceted challenges that the pandemic presents for anti-slavery and anti-trafficking work in the coming weeks and months. The Rights Lab will continue to canvas anti-slavery stakeholders to check that these questions are the right ones—and that they will deliver 'operational' as well as research data. We will do this with sensitivity to the risk that asking for input from stakeholders may distract them from their crucial roles in responding to the crisis.

We know that to answer many of the questions will require access to knowledge or data from frontline professionals. Many cannot be answered without collaboration—for example with law enforcement on questions about organised crime and offender activity. Organisations in the field will have access to the data and will already be working to better understand these issues. We are keen to offer help and collaboration, if that is useful, and do not intend to duplicate efforts. Anyone with collaboration requests, ideas or suggestions can contact us at

The suggested research questions are indicative and not exhaustive. We know that different stakeholders will have other questions. The agenda will therefore continue to grow as a live document. We will work alongside researchers to identify early findings and disseminate them as short briefings to anti-slavery stakeholders who need them quickly. We will upload these briefings here.

Different stakeholders will prioritise particular areas. The potential research questions can be clustered together in different ways. Many of the questions focus on how to protect people in vulnerable circumstances from the disease itself and on trying to understand the impact of anti-Covid measures on people at risk of exploitation. Some crucial and urgent questions revolve around very real difficulties for victims and survivors of slavery, including those resulting from the current responses to the pandemic. We have listed these questions first in each of the 9 categories, to acknowledge that they will be a priority for many stakeholders.

Going forward we will cluster and answer some of these questions, and will work with other research organisations and anti-slavery stakeholders on this effort. We will post updates. We link to our research, briefings and evidence submissions about modern slavery and Covid-19 at our website, alongside other responses on Covid-19’s implications for modern slavery.

This initial research agenda was created with input from across the Rights Lab’s research team and from some of its partners: UNU-CPR (James Cockayne), the Survivor Alliance (Minh Dang), the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s Office (Jenna Teasdale), Freedom Fund (Yuki Lo), Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery (Urmila Bhoola), the Home Office Modern Slavery Unit (Phoebe Blagg), the FCO Modern Slavery Team (Sarah Boardman), the DFID Migration and Modern Slavery Department (Pam Vallance), the FCO Forced Marriage Unit (Sarah Timmis), and the University of Sheffield (Elizabeth Such).


Read Rights Lab Covid-19 Research and Evidence


Read Other Relevant Covid-19 Responses


Read Rights Lab Covid-19 and Modern Slavery: Research Questions


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