The time is now

15th March 2024


Dr Julie Riggs issues a call to arms to tackle a modern-day human tragedy

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 slavery trade, cotton picking and sugar plantations. You might also think that those horrific moments in humanity have been confined to the history books, with the abolishment of slavery 200 years ago. Yet that is not the case. Neither is it something happening only on distant shores – it is in the cities and towns where we live. Slavery is worth $150bn in illegal profits a year, which is more than the annual profits of companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Starbucks.

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. It is estimated there are 122,000 people caught up in it in the UK. From a population of approximately 65 million, 1.8 people for every thousand may be victims of slavery. The victims may be the people who serve us drinks, clean our vehicles and our homes, pick our crops or make our food, care for our children and elderly.

Modern slavery is estimated to cost the UK £33bn per year. 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

In many parts of the world, modern slavery is 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. The situation is likely to worsen, with sea levels predicted to rise by 30-60cms before 2100, more plastic in our oceans than fish, 95% of earth’s land degraded and unable to support agriculture use, and droughts predicted to displace 700 million people by 2030.

The recent pandemic pushed a further 71 million into extreme poverty. Since the war in Ukraine, the global food supply has been disrupted, as the country 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 – owing to rising food and energy prices and increasing financial constraints.

We are breaking weather and climate records every year, and, more worryingly, the acceleration of such events is becoming more frequent and severe. In 2023, our global warming surpassed the 1.5°C that scientists have been warning against, and we are now accelerating towards the devastating effects of a further 0.5°C increase.

Despite the richest 1% of the world’s population creating twice the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the poorest 50%, it is the poorest populations that bear the impact of climate change. In 2022, 32.6 million people were displaced by climate-related disasters.

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. Humanity is in code red, causing vulnerable environments and the displacement of people.

A missed opportunity

The UK has long been a leading voice on anti-slavery. 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. 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 that will enable the five countries to 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 for 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 made more people vulnerable to exploitation. In the year 2022, 2.1 million people, or 3% of families, used a food bank. Refugees and those seeking asylum are also at heightened risk of exploitation in the UK, owing to social and cultural isolation and 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, or a high reliance on temporary, irregular and other defenceless workforces, this can easily create vulnerable environments where modern slavery can occur and grow.

As part of the Queen’s Speech in 2022, following the recommendations of the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act, the UK government announced a new Modern Slavery Bill to strengthen the modern slavery and human trafficking statements made by large UK organisations. It also signalled the creation of an online public registry, where organisations could publicly post their annual statements, setting out the steps 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.

The anticipated bill was noticeably absent from the King’s speech in November 2023, although a new online registry was launched in 2021, allowing 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 that modern slavery is secondary to other local, national agendas.

With a number of countries around the world deregulating employment protections and equality for workers to support their economy and boost their 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 critical area is the supply chains of many – if not all – businesses.

Trade ethically

An estimated 80% of global trade passes through supply chains and companies. The UK is no different – it imports $26.1bn 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, environmental and sustainability practitioners are critical in advocating change, working with employers to check that supply chains have decent, safe and healthy working conditions – which will help to eliminate modern slavery activities.

There are a number of steps that a business and its environmental and sustainability practitioners can take to eliminate modern slavery from their business and supply chain:

  • Publish a slavery and human trafficking statement to demonstrate what steps the business is taking to prevent modern slavery.
  • Review existing policies and processes to ensure that all practical steps are being taken to eliminate modern slavery in the organisation itself and its supply chain.
  • Engage with all of the organisation’s suppliers, informing them of your commitment to preventing modern slavery and explaining how you will support them 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 to operate to avoid labour exploitation.
  • Consider conducting an assessment to identify areas within the supply chain that are potentially at high risk of slavery – 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 their practices for preventing slavery, as well as how they source materials and goods and manage their own supply chains.
  • Establish a whistleblowing process that enables individuals to report any concerns or suspicions of modern slavery.
  • Provide 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. This will support individual commitment to helping prevent modern slavery within any area of the business and its supply chain.

Decade of action

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 or donate to charities working to stop modern slavery
  • Advocate change at your workplace.

Modern-day human tragedy

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 centuries? Would I have been an advocator for changes to slavery laws, or would I have chosen to look the other way? We are faced with this choice today – do we act, or do we choose to avert our gaze? Will we be on the right side of history in another 200 years? We cannot unsee the seen.

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

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

Image credit: Shutterstock

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