On 24 May 2023, Walk Free, an international human rights group focused on the eradication of modern slavery, published the fifth edition of its Global Slavery Index (the “Index”), which provides a national level analysis of modern slavery across 160 countries.
Modern slavery is a growing global problem against a backdrop of compounding risks. According to the Index, some 50 million people around the world are living in modern slavery, with a reported 28 million in forced labour, 22 million in forced marriage and 12 million in child labour. Moreover, the Index estimates that around US$ 468 billion of goods imported by the G20 are at risk of being tainted by modern slavery. This includes products related to: cattle, coal, cocoa, coffee, electronics, fish, garments, gold, palm oil, rice, solar panels, sugar cane, textiles and timber.
The Index includes a heatmap that illustrates where modern slavery risks are more acute. In practice, this may prove to be a helpful tool for companies seeking to identify and assess human rights (and, in particular, modern slavery risks) in global supply chains in order to respond to: emerging mandatory human rights due diligence (“HRDD“) laws; obligations under established international norms (such as the UN Guiding Principles); and increasing stakeholder expectations.
Modern slavery in all its forms (which includes forced labour, forced or servile marriage, debt bondage, human trafficking, the sale and exploitation of children) is the systematic removal of a person’s freedom. According to the Index, the problem of modern slavery continues to grow globally and both exacerbates and is compounded by wider global phenomena. Disruption to employment and education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflicts, environmental degradation and assaults on democracy in many countries have led to an increase in modern slavery, such that nearly 10 million people have been forced to work or marry since 2016.
Since the 2018 Global Slavery Index was published, there has been an increased focus on, and drive towards, mandatory HRDD and more robust modern slavery reporting (see, for example, our previous blogs here, here and here). The Index notes that only Australia, France, Germany and Norway have set a legislative standard that Walkfree would like to see adopted more broadly. That said, the EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, which, as currently drafted, will introduce mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence standards at an EU level, continues through the European Parliament’s legislative process (see our previous blog post).
Modern slavery risks: goods and technology
As noted above, according to the Index, US$ 468 billion of goods imported by the G20 are at risk of being tainted by modern slavery. This includes products related to: cattle, coal, cocoa, coffee, electronics, fish, garments, gold, palm oil, rice, solar panels, sugar cane, textiles and timber. Companies that produce or procure goods of this nature in their supply chains should take note of the risks identified by the Index.
Modern slavery has also permeated digital chains. According to the Index, this is apparent in two main areas: (i) the extraction and development of raw materials to create devices that enable consumers to access the internet; and (ii) sexual exploitation using social media. The former may give mining and extractives companies, which often have complex global supply chains, pause for thought. The latter is a growing but often overlooked concern due to the high level of deception used in fake advertisements for jobs online. In June 2021, for example, 11 people were arrested for trafficking women and girls from Bangladesh to India for sexual exploitation after luring them via a social media account with the promise of work.
The Index notes that there is an urgent need to move from intention to real action. In particular, the Index makes the following recommendations.
- Governments and the international community must recognise and respond to modern slavery as an intersectional issue, such that humanitarian actors are properly trained on different forms of discrimination and how that may interplay with modern slavery.
- Governments must focus on prevention and protection for those already vulnerable, a key method of which would be to increase access to education for all children, especially girls.
- Governments must ensure effective civil and criminal protections in legislation to tackle forced and child marriage, primarily by raising the legal age of marriage to 18 without exceptions and criminalising the act of marrying someone without consent.
- Governments must implement stronger measures to combat forced labour in public and private supply chains – for those countries with some HRDD already in place, this may take the form of additional import controls on products linked to forced labour.
- Governments and businesses must prioritise human rights when engaging with repressive regimes, which may take the form of ceasing business relations with any states known for endorsing state-imposed forced labour.
The Index shines a light on sectors and regions that present particularly acute modern slavery risks. As companies develop, review and enhance their existing modern slavery and human rights risk management programmes, they should look to incorporate considerations highlighted by the Index. More broadly, in light with best practice, companies may wish to apply the below strategies to improve their human rights-related risk management strategies:
- Ensuring that they have processes in place at a board level to translate human rights-related commitments into positive action;
- Closely monitoring legislative developments relating to mandatory HRDD obligations;
- Integrating meaningful stakeholder engagement in all steps of their HRDD process;
- Carrying out a human rights impact assessment and taking proportionate counter-measures, as well as communicating internally and externally on what measures have already been taken;
- Reviewing and reinforcing complaints mechanisms and speak-up programmes, and ensuring they are well-equipped to deal with human rights-related “crises”;
- Reviewing the extent to which their board is equipped to address supply chain risks, including through training executives and seeking independent support and advice; and
- Reviewing the role, resources and expertise of the legal and compliance functions, who should play a key part in addressing these new challenges.