Modern slavery

Child agricultural worker picking cotton in Turkey-Yavuz Sariyildiz Shutterstock.com

The first clause of the ETI Base Code requires that employment is freely chosen. Yet while slavery is almost universally outlawed, modern slavery is still widespread.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 21 million men, women and children around the world are in some form of slavery. Most are in Asia, although even in Europe hundreds of thousands are suspected to be victims every year. In the UK, the Home Office estimates that 10-13,000 people are in modern slavery at any one time.

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Why and where modern slavery thrives

As Anti-Slavery International Director, Aidan McQuade writes, slavery thrives when people are “deliberately or unthinkingly excluded from social and economic development, justice and the rule of law”.

Business operations and corporate practices driven by a constant search for low input prices and high profits can contribute to the problem, with the drive for ever lower prices and shorter lead times often increasing the risk of exploitation of workers and of slavery.

The nature of global supply chains is also increasingly complex and slavery can be found in any part of the supply chain and in any country. But the risk tends to be highest in lower tiers where there is little visibility and where there is the most vulnerable and socially excluded workforce.

In the context of complex supply chains that stretch over continents, every business can be affected by slavery.  ETI’s study with the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability found that 71 per cent of companies believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring in their supply chains.

What is modern slavery?

Modern slavery is an overarching term used to describe its various forms.

  • Human trafficking
  • Forced and compulsory labour
  • Bonded labour
  • Slavery

Human trafficking is a process of bringing a person into a situation of exploitation through a series of actions, including deceptive recruitment and coercion.

Forced labour is any work or services which people are not doing voluntarily and which is exacted under a threat of some form of punishment.

Bonded labour is demanded as a means of repayment of a debt or a loan.

Slavery is a situation where a person exercises (perceived) power of ownership over another person.

Modern slavery lies at the extreme edge of a continuum in which respect for workers’ rights and their ability to claim their rights lie at the opposite end. It is found at many workplaces – on farms, in factories, private homes and in ancillary services.

The four key ways business can contribute to slavery alleviation

  1. Recognise workers’ rights: The single biggest factor that can contribute to ending extreme labour exploitation is to recognise workers’ rights to organize: to collectively negotiate terms and conditions of work and to have the freedom to leave abusive employers. The risk of modern slavery dramatically decreases in workplaces where trade unions are encouraged to operate. Laws and regulations that protect workers’ rights are also important in ensuring that workers can claim their rights, and that the most vulnerable are identified and given the protection they need.
  2. Attain maximum supply chain transparency: Increased downward visibility helps reduce the likelihood that some operators within a supply chain use illegal practices. Traditional audits have been deemed ineffective in detecting slavery within supply chains: as a criminal activity, perpetrators will make every effort to conceal it. Companies need to review their due diligence processes to ensure that they are fit for purpose and track reports of forced labour and trafficking that alert them to risk areas.
  3. Work with others to address risks of slavery in their supply chains: Resolving complex issues like slavery requires sophisticated solutions and no one company can do this alone. Linking up with specialist NGOs can help detect whether slavery, trafficking or forced labour is being practised and they may also be able to help find strategies to tackle them. ETI provides a platform for its members where they can come together to devise strategies and seek input from trade union and NGO members and receive training.
  4. Call for improved enforcement and regulation: Improved regulation and transparency helps to create a level playing field and root out businesses that derive competitive advantage from modern slavery. ETI and its members and allies fought hard to include and strengthen the Transparency in Supply Chains clause in the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015. Other standards are in place around the world.