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A call to arms to tackle a modern day human tragedy

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Millions of people globally are trapped in forms of modern slavery such as bonded labour, but businesses can play a vital role in confining the practice to the history books, once and for all.


Modern slavery is the largest, growing, international crime, exceeding that of illegal drugs and arms trafficking. When you hear the term slavery, you might think about the transatlantic slave trade, cotton picking and sugar plantations. You might also think that this horrific period in humanity had been confined to the history books, with the abolition of slavery 200 years ago.

Yet today, modern slavery is not confined to the history books, nor is it happening on distant shores. It is in the cities and towns that we live in. Slavery is worth $150 billion in illegal profits a year. That is more than the annual combined profits of companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Starbucks.  

Every country is affected by modern slavery. It cuts across ethnic, cultural and religious lines. Today, there are more people on any one day caught in the ties of slavery compared to the whole of the transatlantic slave trade (10 to 12 million Africans). The transatlantic slave trade left behind a legacy of inequality that today’s generation is still experiencing. However, by understanding the struggles of those who came before us, and by recognising the parallels between historical slavery and present-day exploitation, we can – and must – learn how to effect change, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Every country is affected by modern slavery. Photograph: iStock/NadyaPhoto

Modern slavery is a complex and hidden crime, with 50 million people a year trafficked, tricked, coerced, forced or born into slavery, an increase of 10 million since 2016. Despite it being viewed as an invisible problem, slavery is all around us, and the victims may be the people who serve us drinks, clean our vehicles and our homes, pick our crops, make our food, and care for our children and our elderly. We have a duty to protect the most vulnerable from such exploitation.

It is estimated there are 122,000 people caught in modern slavery in the UK. So, from a population of approximately 65 million, 1.8 people out of every thousand may be victims of slavery. Modern slavery is also estimated to cost the UK £33 billion per year. Aside from the hidden slavery in the UK itself, the UK also contributes to slavery within the wider, global supply chain. If we consider the layers of actors involved in a supply chain (materials, processes, labour), and the flow of goods and services from businesses and locations, there are many opportunities for modern slavery violations to occur.

Sustainability is intrinsically linked to modern slavery

Often when we hear people talk about sustainability, we consider our environment, but there are much broader global issues that need to be tackled. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a series of 17 goals fixed by the United Nations and adopted by 193 countries in 2015, are about protecting people and the planet. Through sustainable economic, environmental and social development, the overall objective of the SDGs is to create a better world, and a better life for all, by 2030. However, many of our environmental issues are driving modern slavery.

In many parts of the world, modern slavery is also being driven by ongoing political instability, civil insecurity and economic downturns. Factors such as climate change, extreme weather and migration, food scarcity and increased poverty are also making people increasingly vulnerable to becoming enslaved.

Today, one billion people live in slums and two in 10 people are subject to discrimination as defined in human rights laws. With sea levels predicted to rise by 30–60cms before 2100, more plastic in our oceans than fish, 95 per cent of Earth’s land degraded (unable to support agriculture use), droughts predicted to displace 700 million people by 2030 and extreme weather becoming more frequent and extreme, humanity is in code red, causing vulnerable environments and the displacement of people.

The recent pandemic pushed a further 71 million into extreme poverty. Since the war in Ukraine began, the global food supply has been disrupted, as Ukraine is a major exporter of cereal grains and sunflower oil. The war has increased the risk of hunger for one-fifth of the global population, around 1.7 billion people, due to rising food and energy prices and increasing financial constraints.

In 2023, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and, most recently, Libya have all suffered extensive flooding. Europe experienced Storm Daniel, the largest Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone ever recorded. The US has set a record for the most natural disasters in a single year (23 extreme weather events), costing $57.6 billion. Canada experienced record-breaking wildfires and the lowest level of sea ice was recorded in Antarctica. In the UK, we are consequentially hitting extreme heat levels. In July 2022, the county of Lincolnshire hit 40.3°C.

We are breaking weather and climate records every year and, more worryingly, the acceleration of such events is becoming more severe.

In November 2022, the world’s population surpassed eight billion people, having grown by one billion since 2010, with predictions of hitting 8.5 billion by 2030. Population growth is likely to put further pressure on scarce food supplies, encourage the exploitation of people and resource use, and increase the inequality of food distribution and environmental impacts, therefore exacerbating some of the global issues we face today.

Despite the richest one per cent of the world’s population creating twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as the poorest 50 per cent, it is the poorest populations that bear the impact of climate change. In 2022, 32.6 million people were displaced due to climate-related disasters. However, there is a lack of data to allow us to distinguish between general migration numbers and those who have been displaced due to climate impacts.

The absence of reliable statistics on the likely numbers displaced by climate change – plus the dearth of baseline data on the extent and location of modern slavery – are no doubt making it difficult to accurately identify and understand the correlation between modern slavery, the state of the environment and climate change. In turn, this may delay international and national policy and action on problems such as climate change and slavery, and subvert global progress toward achieving all 17 of the SDGs. This includes SDG 8 on promoting decent work for all, which includes a goal to eradicate forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour.

A missed opportunity

The UK has long been a leading voice on anti-slavery. Following a tireless campaign led by William Wilberforce, in 1807 the slave trade in the British Empire was abolished. The Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was signed into law, after 18 years of trying to pass an abolition bill. The Act created fines for ship captains who continued with the trade. These fines could be up to £100 per enslaved person found on a ship. Captains would sometimes dump captives overboard when they saw British Royal Navy ships coming, in order to avoid these fines.

However, slaves in the colonies (excluding areas ruled by the East India Company) were not freed until 1838, and only after slave-owners, rather than the slaves themselves, received compensation equivalent of £1.6 billion in today’s money. This caused a debt so big that British taxpayers only finished paying it off in 2015. Africans who were ‘freed’, however, were not free to do as they wished, since they would be enlisted into the British army or navy. Women and children who were ‘freed’ from slavery became apprentices to land owners, the military, and/or local government, and worked as labourers and domestic helps. So, despite the change in law, the UK Parliament was slow to make the abolition of slavery effective, probably because the slave system was a significant contributor to the finances of the British economy.

As a country with relatively high levels of wealth, and with dedicated resources available to address modern slavery, the UK has recently been at the forefront of international efforts to tackle the problem, and has made one of the strongest responses globally. In 2015, the UK became the first country to pass legislation to combat modern slavery, closely followed by Australia, Canada and many European countries, which followed the UK’s precedent. The landmark Modern Slavery Act, a globally-leading piece of legislation, introduced criminal offences for slavery and trafficking for all forms of exploitation. In September 2018, the UK, alongside the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, established a joint framework of principles, by which the five countries will work together to tackle modern slavery in global supply chains.

However, the problem of modern slavery in the UK has arguably failed to improve since the introduction of the legislation in 2015. Also, post-Brexit, changes to UK immigration policy may potentially discriminate against and criminalise vulnerable people (who may be reluctant to contact the authorities about being victims of slavery due to fear of deportation), further increasing the potential for modern slavery.

Growing inequality, poverty and lack of access to basic needs drives vulnerability to modern slavery. The cost-of-living crisis in the UK has also made more people vulnerable to exploitation. In the year 2022, 2.1 million people, or three per cent of families, used a food bank. Refugees and those seeking asylum are also at heightened risk of exploitation in the UK, due to social and cultural isolation, lack of access to basic resources and employment opportunities, often compounded by an insecure immigration status.

Forced labour is reported in many sectors, including farming, hospitality, beauty, construction, manufacturing, car washes, domestic service and other service industries. Wherever there is a reliance on labour-intensive tasks, a high demand for low-cost or cheap labour, a high reliance on temporary, irregular and other defenceless workforces, vulnerable environments can easily be created where modern slavery can occur and grow.

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has reported that official figures show there has been a five-fold increase in modern slavery victims in the UK since 2015, with figures rising from 3,264 victims in that year to 17,000 potential victims in 2022. However, this is certainly an underestimate, and some commentators have predicted there may be as many as 122,000 victims in the UK. A further distressing fact is that, out of a record high number of British potential victims of slavery in 2022, one in five were children.

At the Queen’s Speech in 2022 – following the recommendations of an independent review of the Modern Slavery Act – the UK government announced a new Modern Slavery Bill which would strengthen the contents of modern slavery and human trafficking statements that are currently made by large UK organisations. It would also create an online public registry where organisations could publicly post their annual statements setting out the steps they have taken to prevent modern slavery in their businesses and supply chains. The stated purpose of the bill was to strengthen protection and support for victims and to increase companies’ accountability in terms of supply chains. 

Currently, commercial organisations in the UK with an annual turnover of over £36 million must produce a slavery and human trafficking statement every financial year. The statement must set out the steps the organisation has taken to eradicate modern slavery in its supply chain and in its own business, or it must state that the organisation has taken no such steps.

However, under the proposed bill, public bodies with a budget of £36 million or more, including local authorities in England and Wales, will in future also be required to regularly report on the steps they have taken to prevent modern slavery in their supply chains.

The bill would also mandate the key topics that modern slavery statements must cover, from due diligence to risk assessment, to encourage organisations to be transparent about the work they are doing to ensure responsible practices. Finally, the bill would also introduce a requirement for organisations with a budget of £36 million or more in all sectors to publish their modern slavery statements on a new digital government reporting service. The aim of this duty is to boost transparency, making it easier for consumers, investors and civil society to hold organisations to account for the steps they have taken to root out modern slavery.

The anticipated Bill was noticeably absent from the King’s speech in November 2023 (although a new online registry was launched in 2021 that allows organisations to voluntarily publish their modern slavery statements).

To many commentators, although the UK has led the world in tackling this pernicious international crime, it has now left a deathly silence, sending a signal to the world that modern slavery is secondary to other local and national agendas.

With a number of countries around the world deregulating employment protections and equality for workers to support their economies and boost trading prospects, the richest countries must lead by example if we are to have any chance of eradicating modern slavery. We need the UK to strengthen its anti-slavery frameworks, not weaken them. As a global community, we must work together to tackle modern slavery and a key critical area is the supply chains of many – if not all – businesses.

Trade ethically

An estimated 80 per cent of global trade passes through supply chains and companies. The UK is no different – the UK imports US$ 26.1 billion of products annually, a significant proportion of which are at risk of being made using forced labour.

Nearly two-thirds of all forced labour cases are linked to global supply chains. Most forced labour occurs in the lowest tiers of supply chains; that is, in the extraction of raw materials, which are then used in manufacturing and shipped elsewhere. The reality of this can be seen in children being forced to mine cobalt for use in the latest mobile phones, or women forced to produce coffee for one of our best-known coffee brands. A single smartphone or laptop can contain thousands of components that each have their own supply chain and material extraction process.

Therefore, implementing effective supply chain management and comprehensive monitoring to eliminate slavery in the lifecycle of products will only be achieved by working collaboratively. The occupational safety and health (OSH) community can take an active role in eradicating modern slavery. With their existing risk management, influencing and education skills, OSH practitioners are critical in advocating change and working with employers to check supply chains have decent, safe and healthy working conditions – which will help to eliminate modern slavery.

Businesses can take steps to help tear modern slavery apart. Photograph: iStock/Kameleon007

Key steps a business and its OSH practitioners can take to eliminate modern slavery from their business and its supply chain include:

  • Publish a slavery and human trafficking statement to demonstrate the steps the business is taking to prevent modern slavery. The statement should be active and not just a compliance policy that sits on the organisation’s website, hidden with the organisation’s terms and conditions and GDPR statements.
  • Review existing policies and processes to ensure all practical steps are being taken to eliminate modern slavery in the organisation itself and its supply chain – such as in recruitment procedures, key business decision-making guidelines or ensuring investments made by the business do not inadvertently contribute towards modern slavery.
  • Engage with all of the organisation’s suppliers, informing them of the company’s commitment to prevent modern slavery and how it will support its supply chain to mitigate the risk of slavery within their own businesses.
  • Introduce a supplier code of conduct that clearly outlines the standards of ethical trade and practices the organisation expects from its supply chain. In particular, the code should specify how suppliers are expected (and required) to operate to avoid labour exploitation. Also, clauses on how suppliers must take all appropriate action to prevent modern slavery in their own operations and supply chain should be included in all contracts agreed with suppliers.
  • Consider conducting an assessment to identify potential high risks of slavery in the organisation’s supply chain – such as low or unskilled labour tasks or countries/industries with known high levels of modern slavery.
  • Monitor and audit supply chain businesses to understand not just their own practices for preventing slavery in their business, but how they manage their own supply chain and how materials and goods are sourced. Although incentives and collaboration can influence change (such as bigger businesses helping their supply chains to prevent modern slavery at work), it is also important to clearly outline the consequences if a supplier is unable to operate ethically – such as being removed from the main organisation’s list of approved suppliers.
  • Establish a whistleblowing process that enables individuals to report any concerns of suspicions of modern slavery – such as staff from the organisation itself or its supply chain partners, end consumers of the organisation’s products or people who have become victims of modern slavery in some level of the organisation’s supply chain.
  • Education can play an important role in reducing the risk of slavery within an organisation or its supply chain. There are many different forms of modern slavery and much misconception about it. However, providing information and training to employees on modern slavery, the organisation’s commitment to preventing the problem and the steps the organisation is taking to reduce the potential risk, will support individual commitment to preventing modern slavery within any area of the business and its supply chain.

For example, employees in procurement and other relevant departments should be trained to spot and report signs of modern slavery inside the organisation and throughout the supply chain. People such as OSH practitioners can also educate the leadership team about the business benefits of showing real commitment to preventing slavery in the organisation’s operations (such as an enhanced reputation among customers and investors), which will incentivise leaders to proactively act on any possible risk of modern slavery.

Decade of Action

Promises and statements are not enough; the Decade of Action (2020–2030) – the UN’s call for the world to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030 – calls for governments, businesses and all other stakeholders to accelerate sustainable solutions to all the world’s biggest challenges. How many more tragic lives have to be lost to modern slavery before we can truly take affirmative action, to take more responsibility beyond just having a dormant modern slavery policy?

The one incident that deeply affected me was Rana Plaza, the Bangladesh factory collapse in 2013, which killed 1,132 workers, with reports of forced labour and human right breaches. There is one haunting photo, called the final embrace, taken by Bangladeshi photographer Taslima Akhter, which encapsulates the tragedy. This photo appeared in Time magazine. The precious lives that were lost spurred me from being a passive reader to taking more affirmative action.

Clearly, some of these issues – such as ending extreme poverty, fighting inequality and injustice, fixing climate change and ending modern slavery – are big goals. So, how can we all make a difference? As governments, international organisations and world leaders discuss and set world-changing objectives, can we, as individuals, make a positive impact?

Every human on Earth is part of the solution. Fortunately, there are some simple things we can adopt into our daily routines which, if we all undertake these actions, will make a big difference. For modern slavery, this means you should: 

  • Educate yourself, know the signs
  • Be conscious as a consumer and buy from ethical and slave-free companies 
  • Spread the word to friends and family
  • Support, volunteer, donate to charities working to stop modern slavery
  • Advocate change at your workplace

Modern day human tragedy

The suffering, pain and impact of the 10–12 million enslaved Africans who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century is still felt today. We are horrified by the cruelty inflicted by one human to another, yet today, more than 200 years after slavery was abolished, despite overwhelming evidence and testimonies, modern slavery is thriving.

We can no longer be a passive voice to a modern-day human tragedy. Whenever I talk about modern slavery, I often think, would I have been on the right side of history in the 16th to 19th century? Would I have been an advocate for changes to slavery laws, or would I have chosen to look the other way? We are faced with this choice today – do we take action, or do we choose to avert our gaze? Will we be on the right side of history in another 200 years?

We are now in the decade of action, the last six years of the 2030 goals, so it’s time to act. We all have the ability to make a difference, so let’s all please use this moment to create a legacy of change.

 

UK government guidance on modern slavery, including advice for businesses on publishing an annual modern slavery statement and general advice on ensuring transparency in supply chains: gov.uk/government/collections/modern-slavery

The UK’s modern slavery statement registry for businesses: modern-slavery-statement-registry.service.gov.uk/

 

Dr Julie Riggs is director of education and membership at the British Safety Council.

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