The rise in global slavery demands business examine supply chains

The International Labour Organisation, the United Nations International Organisation for Migration and Walk Free recently released the Updated Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report. It makes for concerning reading.

Based on 2021 global estimates, there are approximately 50 million people in situations of modern slavery on any given day and this number has increased since previous estimates were released in 2017. These numbers include people in forced labour or people in forced marriages.

Through the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global community has committed to ending modern slavery by 2030. An increase in slavery suggests that an increase in efforts to combat it is needed if the global community is to meet its goals.

James Bartle of Outland Denim, which manufactures and sells jeans, says his business was built on the principle of helping reduce modern slavery.Credit:Sam Jam Photo

There are 27.6 million people in situations of forced labour on any given day and, of this, more than 3.3 million are children. There has been an increase of 2.7 million people in forced labour between 2016 and 2021. This was driven entirely by the private economy.

The Asia and Pacific region, our own backyard, is host to 15.1 million people in forced labour, more than half of the global total. Sixty-three per cent of forced labour occurs in the private economy in sectors other than commercial sexual exploitation. The five sectors accounting for the majority of adult forced labour are services (excluding domestic work), manufacturing, construction, agriculture (excluding fishing) and domestic work. People in forced labour are more likely to be in manufacturing and much more likely to be in construction.

Disturbingly, more than half of all children in forced labour are in commercial sexual exploitation and the remainder are found in domestic work, agriculture and manufacturing. There are also 3.9 million people in state-imposed forced labour at any point in time.

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Although the principal responsibility for ending slavery lies with governments, a whole-of-society
approach is needed and this includes businesses. One way business can help is to combat forced labour in
operations and supply chains. Attention should focus on identifying, prioritising and acting on “hotspots” where
the risk of forced labour and other human rights abuses is highest. Particular attention should be paid to the
informal micro and small enterprises operating at the lower links of supply chains in high-risk sectors and
locations.

Businesses should also be alive to instances of state-imposed forced labour, ensuring that their supply chains are free from goods or services tainted by it. The recent UN report on Xinjiang province in China has revealed the extent of state-forced labour there. Academics such as Professor Justine Nolan have written that it is now no longer possible for businesses to claim plausible deniability on the issue. The report identifies “labour transfer schemes” where people from Xinjiang work elsewhere in China. Professor Nolan notes this means “goods produced in factories throughout China may be tainted with modern slavery”.

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