Slavery and forced labour are prohibited under a range of international treaties and conventions. Since 1981, slavery has been prohibited by all individual states. However slavery and forced labour remain prevalent; the 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery highlighted that on any given day in 2016, 40 million people were victims of modern slavery, including 25 million people in forced labour and 15 million people in forced marriage. The Global Estimates of Child Labour 2012-2016, published in 2017, highlights that 152 million children aged 5-17 were estimated to be child labourers. According to the ILO, women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labour, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors. Forced labour is immensely profitable with the illicit profit estimated by the ILO in 2014 at $150 billion a year. Although some may consider it an issue for ‘developing’ states, it is a universal issue with examples coming to light in states with modern legislation designed to tackle the problem. The UK Government has undertaken research which estimates that modern slavery:
“costs the UK up to £4.3 billion a year. Each instance of the crime is estimated to cost around £330,000, including the cost of support, lost earnings and law enforcement but most significantly the physical and emotional harms suffered by individuals, who are often exploited over months and sometimes years. This places each modern slavery crime as second only to homicide in terms of harm to its victims and society.”
Article 1(1) of the 1926 Slavery Convention defines slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” The 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery elaborates on this definition of slavery to include forms of slavery including debt bondage, serfdom, where women are enslaved through marriage in various forms, or children delivered for reward or exploitation. The Guidance issued under Section 54(9) of the UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act, defines slavery as ”the status or condition of a person over whom all or any of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.”+ Read more
Forced labour is the most common form of modern slavery. It is not the same as poor working conditions or low pay; Article 2(1) of the ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) defines forced or compulsory labour as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” Article 1(3) The ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 reaffirms this definition and lists measures to be taken regarding prevention, protection and remedy to eliminate all forms of forced labour.
A number of efforts have been adopted to eradicate forced labour and modern slavery. Legislative efforts include the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015, which created offences relating to slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour and human trafficking. The Act also established an Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, provided enhanced protections for victims, and established provision to ensure transparency in supply chains. The Act further requires that businesses over a certain size (regulation has set this as businesses having a total turnover of over £36 million) must prepare a slavery and human trafficking statement for each financial year of the organisation. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has compiled publicly available statements in a Modern Slavery Registry. In July 2018 the UK Government commissioned an independent review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
The first case under the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 was brought before the High Court of England and Wales, whereby the Court held that the defendant business had failed to pay the national minimum wage, made unlawful deductions from wages, failed to provide adequate facilities to wash, rest, eat and drink, and owed the victims compensation. The first individual convicted in the UK for a human trafficking offence was sentenced to 27 months in jail.
Following a Parliamentary inquiry, the Australian Parliament passed the Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act in November 2018 which came in to force 1 January 2019. It requires entities to make annual public reports on their actions to address modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains. The Act applies to businesses with an annual revenue of AUS $100 million and operating in Australia, as well as government bodies. Businesses below a certain revenue threshold may volunteer to comply with the reporting requirements. The reports will be publicly available on a central repository. At the state level, New South Wales passed a Modern Slavery Act in July 2018, which is more stringent than the federal bill. The NSW Act applies to companies with annual turnover of AUD$50 million and creates monetary penalties for companies with employees in New South Wales that fail to comply with the modern slavery statement requirements.
Brazil’s Dirty List (MTE Decree No. 540/2004), enacted by the Labor Ministry in 2004, publicizes a registry of employers found to be employing workers under conditions analogous to slavery. In accordance with the National Slave Eradication Pact, those on the list are boycotted by over 400 corporate signatories. After two years those listed can be removed, provided that they have paid any fines imposed, awarded any compensation to workers, and not committed further offences. Although there are no financial penalties attached to those in the list, the decree recommends that financial bodies under the Minister of National Integration do no grant those on the list “financial or any other form of assistance with resources”. As a result, in addition to appearing in the list a business “can be can also be penalised with both criminal and commercial sanctions including:
- Freezing its assets
- Denial of government subsidies
- Ineligibility to tender for government projects
- Inability to access credit through public and private financial institutions.”
The Dirty List is updated every six months on the Ministry’s website; as of January 2019, there are 200 companies listed. As an extension of the Dirty List, the state of São Paulo passed the Anti-Slavery Law (Law No. 14.946/2013), to shut down any company found to have used slave labor at any stage of the production process, directly or indirectly.
In the US, aside from the well-established Federal Criminal Code, Executive Order 13627 “Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts” has been in force since 2012. The Executive Order has enhanced the responsibilities and duties of federal contractors and subcontractors to prevent human trafficking. At the internal state-level, one of the most well-known pieces of regulation is the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act 2010, which requires all retailers and manufacturers conducting business in the state, and whose annual worldwide gross receipts exceed $100 million, to report on their implementation of anti-human trafficking compliance controls. A good overview of various efforts is provided in the reports by Mike Dottridge and Zbigniew Lasocik.
Some businesses may have limited visibility on what is occurring in their own complex multi-tier supply chains as suppliers may not be entirely transparent about working conditions, they may sub-contract in breach of contract terms, or they may use unauthorized third-party recruiters. To assist businesses tackle those challenges, the Walk Free Foundation has developed Tackling Modern Slavery in Supply Chains: A Guide, which outlines step-by-step what businesses can and must do to eliminate slavery from their business. The guide provides practical guidance and tools that businesses, governments, non-governmental organisations and civil society actors can start implementing immediately, and details measures including risk assessments and supply chain mapping. Noteworthy initiatives have also been undertaken by the Fair Labor Association, KnowTheChain, and Stronger2gether, among others.
In the UK the Local Government Association and the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner have developed a guide on Modern Slavery for local councils to help councils understand their role in addressing modern slavery.
Under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, company actions to address and avoid forced labour in supply chains primarily relate to SDG target 8.7 on forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour. Businesses can take actions to contribute to SDG target 8.7 for instance by ensuring that workers in their supply chains are paid their wages in time, that no worker passports or travel documents are being held, by eliminating recruitment fees borne by workers, and preventing debt bondage, using key international labour standards as a guide. Through these actions, the companies also contribute to the realisation of other SDGs, such as SDG 10 on reducing inequalities, as well as helping to create decent work in a broader sense (SDG 8.5).