COVID-19 Crisis Aggravates Human Trafficking Risks in Agriculture

By Gabriel Vedrenne

Global efforts to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus through business closures, social distancing and other measures have not reduced the risk of human trafficking or the frequency of transactions that underpin the crime, an intergovernmental group against illicit finance has found.

On May 4, the Financial Action Task Force, or FATF, acknowledged in a report covering trends in illicit finance during the global coronavirus pandemic that criminals may take advantage of the crisis to exploit vulnerable groups, which may in turn fuel “an increase in the exploitation of workers and human trafficking.”

The agricultural sector is particularly exposed because of the perpetually rising demand for food and reduced government oversight over its production. As the primary harvest season begins in the northern hemisphere, these factors have combined to help embed traffickers more deeply within the supply chain, sources told ACAMS

“Because of the current shortage of workers, some within the agricultural industry may turn to subcontractors in touch with human traffickers,” said Ryszard Piotrowicz, first vice president of the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. “It is happening anyway, but the people are exposed to higher risks with COVID-19.”

The ability of financial institutions to detect the flow of funds associated with human trafficking has become especially critical during the lockdown.

Red flags of human trafficking, according to the Financial Action Task Force, include wages of multiple workers being paid into the same account or being simultaneously withdrawn, individuals who accompany one or several migrants to a bank branch and interpret for them while they open accounts, and unrelated customers who share the same address.

Of the 16 million victims of forced labor exploitation worldwide, one in 10 worked in the agricultural, forestry or fishing sectors under threat of violence or some other form of coercion, according to the International Labor Organization. The phenomenon occurs in wealthy and poor nations alike.

“It’s not just in the U.K., it’s the same in Poland, the Baltics, Bulgaria, or Romania,” said Neil Giles, a director with the British nonprofit Stop the Traffik. “Agriculture has been a risk sector for many years, the capacity to be infiltrated by traffic groups is very common because of the need for seasonal workers and the use of worker providers.”

Coronavirus-related border closures have further aggravated these risks by discouraging or preventing seasonal workers from traveling from country to country at a time when farmers need them most.

The pandemic has also disrupted criminal routines.

“Because the opportunities for exploitation in sectors such as construction are not there, traffickers are looking for new ways to make money,” Giles said. “The whole food supply chain is particularly vulnerable at this time, from harvest to packaging to transport, especially since reliable staff providers will not manage to meet the current demand.”

Moreover, criminal syndicates have available manpower to peddle following the closure of restaurants, car washes, nail bars and other businesses that often use undocumented workers.

The risk is all the greater as shelters and other nonprofits who serve as a first line of defense against human trafficking are essentially on lockdown as a result of the pandemic, and law enforcement agencies have been deployed to other missions.

“Labor inspectors, who also play a key role in identifying victims, face the same problem,” Piotrowicz said. “Social distancing is preventing institutions from operating while traffickers are still in business.”

No major human trafficking cases potentially connected to COVID-19 have been publicly reported in Europe yet, including in France, the European Union’s largest agricultural producer.

A spokesman for the Gendarmerie, France’s military-led, national police force, told that authorities have yet to identify a major human-trafficking case related to the pandemic and that the agency “does not yet have the necessary hindsight” to discuss its impact.

But the accumulation of migrants arriving from North Africa and stuck in Italy because of border closures has created a breeding ground for traffickers, and victims already under the thumb of criminal organizations may take even longer to break their bonds by repaying their debts.

For all these reasons, on April 30, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe identified “agriculture, due to the summer harvest, [as] a prime example of an area to monitor with particular attention,” and consequently encouraged nations to “plan systemic labor inspections of high-risk industries immediately after business operations resume.”

Contact Gabriel Vedrenne at

Topics : Anti-money laundering , Counterterrorist Financing , Human Trafficking
Source: FATF
Document Date: May 13, 2020