Modern slavery and child labour: it's all about choice

India Woman worker at a construction site © ILO Joydeep Mukherjee

We know that modern slavery and child labour are crimes and can never be tolerated. But they are also complex problems and tackling them boils down to the question of the choices people make.

New advanced training course: Human rights due diligence

The children, women and men who end up in situations of modern slavery are denied their fundamental right to choose their employer or to leave their place of work.

They are often coerced, threatened and deceived, and have little choice about the type of work they do, their pay, the hours they work, or the ability to keep themselves safe. 

 Download the Child Labour guidance and the Modern Slavery guidance.

Companies face important choices about how they respond to forced labour and child labour. With many different factors driving and contributing to the problem, even the most responsible companies face dilemmas in knowing what choices to make in how they should respond.

For example, a zero-tolerance policy might lead a company to cut and run from a supplier where modern slavery is found. But they should also know that this does not necessarily help matters.

If the problem is endemic to a country, an industry or a sector, what would be achieved if they pulled out? They would most likely find similar situations in other factories or farms.

And where would it leave workers?

Workers can be far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation if they and their family are desperate for the income. As such, they are often simply forced to seek employment elsewhere in circumstances that can be even worse.

Workers’ vulnerability to abuse and exploitation

Seemingly well-meaning but knee-jerk reactions to ‘rescue’ a child or adult from a situation of forced labour can often end up victimising the worker even more:

  • Alerting an employer may result in greater abuse for the worker and threats to their family.
  • The employer or agent might abscond and scupper any possibility of a prosecution.
  • And, if the worker is a migrant, they could be locked up or deported with no rights or entitlements to compensation.

Workers who are the victims of modern slavery are not often asked what they want or given a choice about what lies ahead for them.

Governments too have important choices in how much they are willing and able to protect workers’ rights.

Unfortunately, some are more concerned with protecting the private sector from any form of regulation in the mistaken belief that this will stimulate growth.

Modern slavery thrives where governments choose not to care too much. Not to care about protecting the basic rights of their citizens who make up the labour force of their countries. Not to care about who is exporting workers to earn an income for their families back home.

Some governments are constrained by their own capacity or resources. Yet governments from wealthier countries have a choice about how they invest their international resources, and how they expend their political capital by raising human rights issues in their trade and foreign policy dialogue.

Dealing with forced and child labour

Whilst forced labour and child labour are indeed complex, there are ways to deal with it.

Companies can make better and more informed choices about the decisions and actions they take, and they should know where to go for help when the problem lies beyond their own immediate control.

It’s much easier (and far better of course) to prevent it from happening in the first place.  Engaging with trade unions to enable workers to organise and negotiate their own terms and conditions of work is a key example of this, and would be more sustainable in the long term.

ETI has produced two new Guidance Reports – one on Modern Slavery (focusing on forced labour) and one on Child Labour to give practical advice and guidance.

These Guides will help companies better understand the problem and how to make informed choices about how to tackle it. They provide practical guidance on how to identify, manage and mitigate the problem, on how to understand their individual and collective responsibilities and how to remediate workers whose rights have been violated.  

Modern slavery is not a new agenda for ETI.

The ETI Base Code of labour standards was established almost 20 years ago, and this guidance seeks to provide advice on two key clauses: 

  • Clause 1: Employment is Freely Chosen
  • Clause 4: No Child Labour should be Used

Forced labour and child labour sit at the extreme end of a continuum of exploitation and abuse of workers.

But these labour rights abuses are related to the denial of other workers’ rights, such as the right to freedom of association, living wages, reasonable working hours, job security and freedom from discrimination. 

The Base Code is based on ILO Conventions, and these are heavily referenced in the Guides.

But there is a long distance between international instruments that state what is acceptable in international and domestic law and the actual implementation of these conventions – particularly in the context of complex supply chains in an increasingly globalised economy. 

Going further than the Base Code

The guides go further than explaining what the Base Code clauses mean.

They also set out a practical approach for companies using the ETI Human Rights Due Diligence Framework. This is a framework based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that recognises governments’ responsibilities to protect workers from exploitation and abuse, companies’ responsibilities to respect workers’ rights and for workers to get remedy when their rights are violated. 

 Whatever the circumstance, the protection of workers themselves must be the first consideration for companies and governments – whether they are children or adults. They need to be consulted and supported in whatever action is taken to remove them from harm, and to ensure that their basic ability to earn a decent living is protected.

The guides are aimed at companies. They contain useful advice, examples, explanations and references for more information. 

But each situation of modern slavery is different and responses will need careful analysis, often requiring expertise and partnerships. As such the guides do not provide standard templates or blueprints but will guide companies in their actions and choices.

We invited experts to be lead authors.

The Modern Slavery Guide has been developed in partnership with Anti-Slavery International, with Klara Skrivankova as the lead author. Mike Dottridge, is a child labour, slavery and human rights expert was the lead author of the Child Labour guidance.

Both have decades of experience advising governments, multilateral bodies, companies, and have worked in the field with victims of child labour and forced labour.

Download the Child Labour guidance and the Modern Slavery guidance.

The image of a young Indian worker is courtesy of the ILO and is for illustrative purposes only. It is not necessarily indicative of either child or forced labour.



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