Modern Slavery is a widespread, complex global human rights abuse taking a number of different forms. It encompasses child slavery, bonded labour, forced and compulsory labour, descent-based slavery, early and forced marriage, and human trafficking. The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates there are 45.8 million people living in some form of modern slavery globally. It is worth noting that estimates are difficult, given slavery’s often hidden nature, and definitions do vary. However, all researchers and NGOs agree that slavery remains a grave human rights abuse. For the purpose of this question, the term “modern slavery” is used as an overarching term to describe one or more of these practices.
According to the ILO’s most recent figures, 14.2 million of those working under conditions of forced labour are in the private economy – primarily in agriculture, construction, domestic work, manufacturing, mining and utilities – it has become increasingly clear from both government and civil society perspectives that business must play an integral role in the fight against this global crime. The Modern Slavery Act was passed into Law in order to tackle modern slavery in the UK, thereby making ‘commercial organisations’ with a turnover of more than £36 million legally accountable, by making them publish an annual statement on slavery in their own organisation and their supply chains.
The protection of human rights is embodied in international laws and several conventions that are binding on nation states where countries have ratified international conventions. These requirements will be reflected in most national laws. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) “apply to all States and to all business enterprises, both transnational and others, regardless of their size, sector, location, ownership and structure.” These principles establish that all businesses have an explicit role in the realisation of human rights through a responsibility to respect them, to take steps to avoid infringing on the rights of others, and to address any adverse human impact as a result of their corporate activity. The UNGPs are built on the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework and apply to all human rights issues. Notably, it challenges businesses to identify, prevent, and end human trafficking and to ensure that no forced, bonded or child labour is engaged in the production or sourcing either of its own organisation or across its supply chain.
Abuse of labour is not an issue limited to developing countries. Human trafficking is the fastest growing crime around the world today. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide and conservative research from 2012 estimated trafficking victims as comprising some 44% of this figure. Given the nature of modern slavery, it is very difficult to conduct any accurate calculations. However, based on the 2014 global estimate of human trafficking, the ILO has calculated that illicit profits from the use of forced labour in the private economy amount to US$150.3 billion.
Forced labour, often as a form of human trafficking, occurs in every country, including the United Kingdom. In 2013, the UK National Referral Mechanism (NRM) received 1746 referrals of potential victims of trafficking. This number increased to 3805 cases in 2016. Estimates of numbers of trafficking victims in the UK had ranged from 10,000 to 13,000, but this has been revealed to be only the tip of the iceberg. Forced labour occurs primarily in industries that depend on casual and temporary labour, offer low wages and predominantly use subcontractors, making it hard to track along the value chain. Such abuses are most likely to be found in agriculture (along with related businesses, such as food processing and packing), construction, the services sector (restaurants, hotels, domestic work and care homes) and the sex trade. As well as causing damage to the individual, the criminal activity generally associated with forced and bonded labour may also have negative effects on wider society. Governments also face a loss of tax revenue.
All businesses, whatever the service provided or trade offered, product sold or money invested, are potentially at risk of being affected by modern slavery in their organisations or value chain, with consequent potential legal, operational, financial and reputational damages. However, there are identifiable risk factors:
- Forced labour is likely to be most prevalent where sourcing or other processes occur in countries with inadequate regulation or weak enforcement
- High-risk industries include those which involve raw materials and employ methods which are arduous and hazardous
- Industries which rely upon a low-skilled and temporary workforce with fluctuating seasonal work also carry a higher risk of exploitations, as do those which rely on migrant workers
- Competitive pricing models can increase the chances of forced labour as pressure is passed down the chain to reduce costs
- The risk of having forced labour in the value chain will vary subject to the complexity, sector and locations of value chains involved.
Some forced or bonded workers may be trafficked children. Children may also take on work ‘voluntarily’ as a means of survival, a phenomenon that the UNGPs aim to end. However, many children work within their family or their community as a way of gaining knowledge and skills they will need in adult life, such as subsistence farming or craft work. As pointed out by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other child and labour advocacy groups, the question of acceptable or unacceptable work done by those under 18 years old is a complicated one that is dependent on numerous factors, including the child's age, type of work and conditions they work in. A blanket ban on ‘child labour’ would be unfortunate if it affected children safely engaged in useful work that contributes to their family.
Besides the UNGPs, there are other guidelines promoting best practices for businesses in how they respect the rights of children. A prominent example is “Children's Rights and Business Principles” published in 2012 by UNICEF, the UN Global Compact and Save the Children. The ILO also promotes tools and guidance to identify and combat forced and bonded labour.
However, there is still considerable controversy over the best approach to ensuring that modern slavery is not part of the value chain. Many businesses and NGO practitioners doubt the value of ‘ethical auditing’ of value chains, which has a poor track record in identifying cases or promoting change. Instead a combination of strategies is advocated: risk analysis to identify the parts of value chains most likely to engage in modern slavery; human rights investigations of those value chains to identify any wrongdoings; and potential remediation. This often involves promoting freedom of association, credible complaints procedures, and working with local civil society and government to bring about systemic change.