In 2016, there were 40 million modern slaves in the world, according to Walk Free.
The human rights group’s 2023 Global Slavery Index finds that number has jumped to 50 million.
That is an increase of 10 million people living and working in inhumane and rights-violating conditions in the last decade. This is despite the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 (put in place in 2016) of eradicating modern slavery and forced labor by the year 2030.
This begs the question, why has progress stalled? Why are governments and organizations (and specifically HR leaders) failing to step up and end modern slavery for good?
Modern slavery is a global problem
Before moving into solutions – and the lack of progress – it is important to get a sense of precisely what modern slavery is, how it manifests, and its severe impact on individual victims and society at large.
Chapter One of Siddharth Kara’s 2017 book Modern Slavery provides an overview of the practice and its effects.
Of course, “modern slaves” includes those in forced marriages and living in authoritarian regimes undertaking state-mandated labor, but the term refers most typically to those who were once approached by nefarious actors, human traffickers, who promised opportunity and better lives in foreign lands.
On accepting these offers, victims are met with a range of manipulative behavior – traffickers prevent them from accessing their own legal documents, withhold much of their pay, and often restrict (through physical, legal, or other means) their victims from leaving the location where they are forced to work.
Walk Free finds that North Korea, Eritrea, and Mauritania have the highest proportion of exploitation in their labor forces.
But G20 nations (India, US, UK, Russia, Indonesia, China, France, Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Italy, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and Argentina) are the largest drivers of the problem through supply chains and demand for imports.
Combined, G20 states import over $460 billion of “at risk” products annually – those products are from supply chains especially likely to be “tainted” with forced or coerced labor.
The US alone imports nearly $170 billion of at-risk goods each year.
And six G20 nations are home to some of the largest populations of people living in modern slavery: India (11 million), China (5.8 million), Russia (1.9 million), Indonesia (1.8 million), Turkey (1.3 million), and perhaps most surprisingly, the US (1.1 million).
Lawmakers and organizations need to remember that this problem is not confined by the borders of low-GDP nations.
“At its core, modern slavery is a manifestation of extreme inequality,” said Grace Forrest, founder and director of Walk Free.
Modern slavery is not a set of individual instances of immoral employers making unjust decisions. It is a globalized system of exploitation, driven by the wealthy, which has a hugely detrimental impact on the most vulnerable in our societies.
If you’re an HR professional, solutions are actionable and needed
HR leaders reading this may think there’s not much they can do, that this is the responsibility of governments and lawmakers around the world. But is that really true?
To investigate, UNLEASH reached out to experts to find out what exactly HR departments can do to ensure their employer is not linked to modern slavery, and more broadly, to be sure that their organizations are not home to exploitative labor practices.
“HR, as the gateway to the organization’s labor force, has a significant role to play. From reviewing supplier contracts to rolling out awareness training across the workforce, HR can take the lead in tackling labor exploitation and ensuring modern slavery compliance, a legal requirement in many countries,” shares Nick Henderson-Mayo, director of learning and content at VinciWorks, exclusively with UNLEASH.
Also speaking with UNLEASH, Krystyna Petersen, FCIPD, director of MyPeopleClub, adds: “Having a strong code of conduct, detailing the organization’s commitment to fair labor practices and zero tolerance for exploitation can be really useful in making sure all employees, customers, suppliers are clear on the expectations of the organization when it comes to conduct and the treatment of staff.”
VinciWorks’ Henderson-Mayo continues with one example of an organizational initiative to curb interaction with exploited-labor-contaminated supply chains:
“In 2006, a steel company found evidence of forced labor embedded in the lower tiers of its supply chain during the production of charcoal. The company:
- Engaged with the supplier to create modern slavery policies and procedures
- Conducted in-depth supply chain mapping to six tiers of suppliers
- Worked with their Tier 1 suppliers on systems for safeguarding human rights
- Required suppliers from high-risk industries to attend training and cascade it down their supply chains
“As of 2012, the company had directly trained 2,100 suppliers, who then trained a further 25,000 supplier managers, 85,000 sub-tier contractors and more than 430,000 workers.”
Organizational commitments to clamp down on labor exploitation are great. But they’re even better if they include immediate actions that HR professionals can themselves take to ensure they hire exclusively fair labor.
MyPeopleClub’s Petersen share some examples: “Having strong recruitment processes is another must, verifying ID, doing background checks where appropriate and ensuring the candidate’s legal status is correct.”
Through document verification and background and legal checks, HR teams can be sure that candidates: one, have access to these documents; two, are choosing, of their own volition, to apply and work for their company; and three, are not experiencing inhumane living conditions, coercion, or the withholding of their pay by an exploiter.
If something about an applicant’s situation seems fishy, recruiters and hiring managers are the first able to pick up on and report it to local authorities or, in the UK, to the Modern Slavery Helpline (0800 0121 700).
Not an HR task, but an HR-led responsibility
But, of course, the HR department can only do so much. Ensuring fair labor in all a global entity’s operations is a job for that whole organization.
As Petersen shares: “Training managers and educating people within the business on these topics is also key, as there should be an organizational approach to preventing exploitation of labor and not just down to HR.”
Henderson-Mayo from VinciWorks concludes: “Training is one of the most effective ways to support modern slavery compliance and fight labor exploitation across the supply chain.
“For as little as rolling out a fifteen-minute awareness course, tens of thousands of employees across the organization can understand the possible signs of modern slavery and the red flags that suggest something might not be right with a supplier.
“Tackling modern slavery is not a case of cutting off suppliers at the first sign of concern.
“Engaging with the supply chain means companies can change the labor practices across their network and not only tackle modern slavery, but ensure a high standard of living and respect for the human rights of everyone involved at every level.”
HR professionals are uniquely positioned to prevent exploitation at the hands of human traffickers and corporate interests; the time to take advantage of that position is now.
Sign up to the UNLEASH Newsletter
Get the Editor’s picks of the week delivered straight to your inbox!