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What Employers Should Know About Modern Slavery

The term “modern slavery” generally refers to situations where men, women, and children are working against their will or working in circumstances that do not meet minimum legal standards. Coercion, threats, or deception are used to exploit victims and deprive them of their freedom. While some people commonly associate the term with sex trafficking, it encapsulates the many forms in which human trafficking can occur.

Types of modern slavery

According to Anti-Slavery International, there are an estimated 40.3 million people in modern slavery around the world. The demographics break down as follows:

  • 10 million children;
  • 24.9 million people in forced labor;
  • 15.4 million people in forced marriage; and
  • 4.8 million people in forced sexual exploitation.

The 2018 Global Slavery Index revealed that imports are a key driver of modern slavery. The United States reportedly imports the greatest number of products at risk of using modern slavery. Modern slavery includes bonded labor, child labor, child slavery, descent-based slavery (people born into slavery), domestic servitude, forced labor (including deceptive recruiting for labor or services), forced and early marriage, and human trafficking. 

Individuals trapped in modern slavery often work in unsafe environments; they have no freedom of movement; are fully controlled by their employers; do not work reasonable hours; and typically earn less than minimum wage.

Migrant workers who travel within or outside their countries seasonally for work may also be at risk for exploitation, such as being required to pay for their jobs if recruited, forced to relinquish their identity papers, and be mistreated and made to live in deplorable conditions.

Modern slavery in business

Modern slavery can impact daily business operations. Supply or service contracts entered in one country may be fulfilled by companies engaged in human rights abuses in another. BBC News cites the seafood and cannabis industries as bearing modern slavery risks:

  • The seafood industry in Thailand has been accused of using Burmese and Cambodian men sold into slavery to man fishing boats. Thailand is the world’s third largest seafood exporter.
  • The cannabis industry in the United Kingdom is suspected to have an estimated 3,000 Vietnamese child slaves. The United Kingdom may harbor up to 13,000 slaves trafficked from Albania, Nigeria, Romania, and Vietnam, among other countries.
  • The production of laptops, computers, and mobile phones from China and Malaysia pose modern slavery risks.
  • Professionals may employ slaves in their home, as described by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon in “My Family’s Slave.”
  • Conflict minerals have long troubled many companies. Children as young as seven years old are kidnapped and forced to work in mines in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 30,000 children have been kidnapped and forced to serve as soldiers for warring factions.


Global modern slavery developments

Some countries around the world are taking steps to address modern slavery. The United Kingdom targeted supply chains with anti-slavery legislation when it passed the Modern Slavery Act of 2015. Australia passed its Modern Slavery Act in 2018, establishing an annual framework for large companies to report human rights abuses constituting modern slavery. France passed modern slavery legislation while other countries such as Finland and Germany have efforts underway.

To support companies addressing modern slavery, the US Department of Labor (DOL) is releasing an updated version of the Comply Chain smartphone app, which provides companies guidance on developing robust social compliance systems in their global supply chains. The DOL’s Sweat & Toil app educates users on goods produced by forced or child labor, and developments in the governments' efforts to address the issue.

What companies can do

Policy development: Establish a policy or public statement outlining the organization’s commitment to human rights, specifically rejecting all modern slavery in operations and supply chains. 

Risk assessment: Identify risky locations, industries, and suppliers to unearth and address problem areas.

Active integration: Integrate findings and actions into procedures, corporate governance, and investigative protocols with oversight to increase the likelihood that a company can act when the risk surfaces. 

Create transparency: Train employees, track key metrics, and report these findings to monitor the quality of its anti-modern slavery efforts.

About the Author

Spiwe L. JeffersonSpiwe L. Jefferson is chief counsel of ChristLight Productions Ltd., patron fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and governance committee chair of the board of The BrandLab. She is a member of the ACC employment and labor, law department management, and litigation networks.

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