Modern Slavery is commonly used to characterize a wide range of unethical and abusive behaviors such as human trafficking, forced and bonded labour, child labour, child soldiers, forced marriage and exploitation of migrant workers. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 49.6 million people were living in modern slavery in 2021.

The most common type of modern slavery is forced labor; 27.6 million people were estimated to be in forced labor in 202. Forced labor means workers are coerced, through various mechanisms, to work for little or no money. Forced labor can be private (63% of the time) or state sponsored, as in the case of labor camps in Xinjiang.

The second most common is forced marriage. 22 million people worldwide are estimated to be in a forced marriage (2021). Individuals can be trafficked (which is a fancy way of saying transported) either by force, or by trickery. In some cases, workers are promised a better life in another country if they just pay a small fee for transport. Instead, they are shipped overseas, have their identification taken from them and forced to work with very little or no compensation.

Eradication of modern slavery falls under the “social” element of sustainability. When we define sustainability as the ability to coexist safely for a long period of time, we need to remember that the safety of people working to supply goods and services cannot be forgotten in our pursuit to ensure the safety of humans around the globe.

How is modern slavery still happening?

20 years ago, I started working on a project for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as a graduate student. Being low income graduate students, many of us had multiple part time jobs that we could fit in around school. One of my fellow colleagues at USAID also worked part-time for an organization called Free the Slaves. I remember naively thinking when I first spoke with her, “where is slavery still legal?” I don’t beat myself up for that naïveté – nothing in my history classes or social studies had informed me, at that time, that slavery still existed, or what it looked like.

Now that I have supported organizations working to eradicate modern slavery, I know how prevalent modern slavery is, and how easy it is to hide in plain site. When you have skill shortages and significant cost pressure, you will typically find poor employment practice. Bad actors will often provide trafficked workers to meet a gap in a labor market. They will maintain that low cost workforce through a number of mechanisms. Many of those workers will be working under threat of violence to either themselves or their families, or they will have had their passports confiscated, making it nearly impossible for them to pursue fairer working conditions elsewhere.

In some cases, children are sent to work because their parents cannot work or are deceased. I once heard from a Chief Sustainability Officer who was working to eradicate child labor in her supply chain in the late 2010s, but when her team visited the farms on which children were working, they found that in some cases kids were working because they had lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic, leaving a farm that needed running and with no adult relatives available to help. For more research on that topic, you can read the International Labour Office’s Paper: Intersecting Risks.

In developed economies, regulation will often prevent egregious labor practices such as child labor in legitimate businesses, but that doesn’t mean that worker exploitation has been eradicated in developed economies. What we observe is traditional mechanisms for modern slavery such as human trafficking and child labor providing labor supplies to support organized crime. For example, in the UK, it was estimated in the year ending December 2021 there were 5,468 children at risk of living in conditions classed as modern slavery (through the national referral mechanism). We know these children are highly unlikely to be exploited in legitimate businesses. Boys are more likely to be exploited in criminal activity and girls in sexual exploitation than in traditional labor markets.

We also see worker exploitation hiding in plain site in legitimate businesses through a series of sophisticated measures that hide the origin and living conditions of workers in the supply chain. For example, unethical labor supply agencies will often cut corners in order to provide cheap labor. There have been numerous reports in the UK, identified either through calls to national helplines or through ethical employment audits, of workers being paid below minimum wage, being housed in squalid conditions, and not being provided the breaks, safety equipment, or general working conditions that are required by law.

One of the most common ways companies get around minimum wage laws is by offering minimum wages on paper, but then reducing the actual pay packet by introducing erroneous fees. So, for example, if I worked 40 hours on an agreed wage of £10.42 (the UK minimum wage for workers over 23 years of age effective April 2023). On paper I should be owed £416.80, but when I receive my gross earnings, I find I’ve been paid less. Perhaps I’ve been charged an “energy surcharge” or I’ve been docked wages as a form of punishment. Unethical employers use these methods to skim wages in order to preserve margin on projects that are under significant cost pressure, but all the while looking, on paper, to be paying the minimum wage.

Another form of common modern slavery is domestic servitude. In the words of a modern slavery victim, Fasika:

I worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, without any rest. I worked like a slave and was treated like one. They beat me regularly. The son of Madame tried to rape me several times. They always kept me locked inside the flat on the 13th floor. I couldn’t go out for three years.

Domestic servitude can be particularly difficult to spot because employees live in the home of their employers. Abuse often happens behind closed doors and out of view of the public.

It is critical that we break the cycle of modern slavery, ensuring that workers, often from marginalized groups, achieve the working conditions they are entitled to under the law.

Where is Modern Slavery Most Common?

Excerpt provided courtesy of Shakirat Shittu, from her paper: Environmental Social Governance Performance Risks: Modern Slavery in Oil & Gas Supply Chain Operations

Most often, slaves are employed in traditional, non-technological labour that supports local economies. Across the world slavery is ubiquitous in agriculture, bricklaying, mining, quarrying, textile manufacturing, household work, forest clearing and charcoal making (Bales and Trodd, 2013).

According to Crane (2013), although modern slavery is mostly common in West Africa, Latin America, South and East Asia, it has been discovered in many developed nations in one form or another.

According to CIPS-Walk Free (2013) modern slavery indicators in supply chains may include conditions such as:

  • Minimal worker protection through inadequate legislation or regulation
    enforcement and poor or lack of accountability by business and government
  • High percentage of poverty among the workforce
  • Pervasive discrimination of specific categories of the workforce (e.g., ethnic
    groups and females)
  • High proportion of migrants in the workforce
  • Conflict-affected area or war zones where manufacturing activities take place
  • Certain high-risk industries, especially those that deal with raw materials.

Other indicators include situations of dearth of employment opportunities and one or few businesses’ monopoly on the labour market, recruitment of labourers using agents and acceptance of labour exploitation in society (Gold, Trautrims and Trodd, 2015).

What can we do about it?

17 million workers in forced labor are working in the private sector. This means that we all have the power to reduce modern slavery by demanding that the products we buy are produced ethically. Every good that you purchase has some manner of value chain behind its production. Some sectors have higher risks than others for worker exploitation, and you can reduce the demand for goods produced via exploitation by making thoughtful shopping choices.

For example, there have been numerous reports of forced labor in the Thai fishing industry. The United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found that amongst trafficked migrants aboard Thai fishing vessels, 59% had witnessed the murder of a fellow worker. As a consumer, you can choose not to buy products of the Thai fishing sector unless you are confident they were produced ethically.

Another really common example, that has resulted in specific legislation in the US, is the forced labor associated with the production of polysilicon for solar panels. Approximately 40% of the world’s polysilicon, a key input to the manufacture of solar panels, is manufactured in Xinjiang’s Uyghur Autonomous region. In December 2021, the US passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFPLA) to ensure that goods produced in this region, using state-backed forced labor, do not enter the United States.

Naturally, we cannot spend all of our time researching how ethical the production of every single item we purchase was, but we can leverage tools that already exist to help reduce our demand for unethically produced items.

When purchasing food items, look for the Fairtrade logo. When shopping for goods, try to source them from ethical marketplaces. The Good Trade offers a list of fair trade focused market places where you can more confident that the goods you purchase are produced ethically. The fashion transparency index ranks the top 250 global fashion brands based on how much information they disclose about the social and environmental impacts of their operations.

In short, where you can, and particularly for items you purchase regularly, like food and clothing, take the time to google the brands you use with words like “Modern Slavery” or “Ethical Business”. You will often find (very quickly) if there is any evidence of poor labor practice in their supply chains, or if they have a Modern Slavery policy or processes in place to eliminate modern slavery.


News Article: Thai Factory Supplying Tesco
ILO Forced Labor Paper
UK Statistics: National Referral Mechanism
ONS Child Labor UK
Delta Net: Modern Slavery Common Industries
Thai Fishing & Slavery
Fair Trade Organization

Image courtesy of Tasha Jolley via Unsplash

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