ETI trainer Stirling Smith looks at new statistics on the extent of modern slavery. He asks how the Global Slavery Index figures square with those on forced labour issued by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). And explains why slavery requires a response from all of us, including business. Whatever the differences.
ETI's new Base Code Guidance: Modern slavery - practical guidance for brands and retailers.
There has been plenty of publicity for the latest statistics on the number of people in conditions of modern slavery – 45.8 million of them according to the Global Slavery Index.
Where the world's slaves live
Helpfully, the report lists countries with the highest estimated prevalence of modern slavery by the proportion of their population. North Korea tops this embarrassing list, followed by Uzbekistan, Cambodia, India, and Qatar.
And the report also calculates those countries with the highest absolute numbers of people in modern slavery: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan.
58 per cent of all those people in the world living in slavery are in those five countries.
As the Global Index writers point out: “several of these countries provide the low-cost labour that produces consumer goods for markets in Western Europe, Japan, North America and Australia.”
The ILO estimates 21 million people are in forced labour
The other main source of information on this issue is the ILO which has an estimate of 21 million people in forced labour.
One estimate is more than double the other.
So does this mean there is a big argument about what constitutes modern slavery? And should this worry the 12,000 UK companies with a turnover of more than £36 million a year?
Let's not forget, companies now have a legal obligation to prepare an annual statement on the steps being taken to identify and remediate modern slavery in the supply chain.
If you work for one of those companies, and your manager has asked you to start to draft that statement, you might be thinking “how do I define modern slavery?”
Explaining the difference in definitions and numbers
Much of the difference is explained by what is being counted.
The ILO counts those extreme forms of exploitation that fall within the scope of its Forced Labour Convention – which is, in international law, binding on those countries that ratify it.
It is responsible globally for setting the norms for collecting labour statistics. And it holds regular conferences of experts to discuss the definitions and the ways of counting not just forced labour and child labour, but also accidents at work and occupational diseases.
Inevitably, its data can therefore seem on the conservative side.
The Global Slavery Index casts its net more widely:
- Its definition includes, for example, forced marriage (and even that is rather difficult to define).
- Its data has been drawn from surveys undertaken by the Gallup organisation.
While it certainly captures public attention, there are many questions about the credibility and relevance of some of the data used.
But the fact remains that whether there is an over- or under-estimation of the numbers of people in modern slavery, companies should be worried.
Modern Slavery requires a response from all of us, including business
Modern slavery is a broad concept.
As I have explained previously, slavery is a dynamic beast which evolves and spreads because of the constantly changing nature of modern global supply chains.
It is an extreme kind of employment relationship and it is a hidden problem. It relies on unscrupulous people in a position of power who have control over the working lives of people. People who are subjected to gross exploitation, abuse and coercion.
Modern slavery requires a response from all of us.
And now, because of the Modern Slavery Act, it certainly requires a response from business.
Yet some people might think: “I’m not too worried – I’m a business that doesn’t have a public profile. After all, who will read these reports?”
That could well be a mistake.
Learning consumer lessons from history
Quite apart from newspapers and campaign groups, there are plenty of consumers out there who will be looking at statements. They might well be moved to take action too.
In the 1790s, after parliament rejected a bill to abolish slavery, there was a huge consumer boycott of the main produce of slavery in the British Empire.
Sales of sugar dropped by over a third, and sales of sugar produced without slaves increased enormously.
But if you’re still confused, or worried about drawing up your statement under the Modern Slavery Act, don’t worry. Help is at hand.
There is an excellent ETI course designed just for you.
Sign up for our modern slavery training now. Or we can deliver it in-house for key staff and suppliers
Photograph of garment workers in Bangladesh is courtesy of the ILO and is for illustrative purposes only. It does not relate to an actual incidence of modern slavery.