The supply chains of multinational corporations, which produce the majority of international trade, are inherently complex and dynamic. They create employment and opportunities for economic and social development, yet the demand for cheap labour, lack of visibility, and dynamics of production in informal unregulated markets can result in subjecting individuals to extreme exploitation.

While slavery was effectively banned decades ago under the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even on the narrowest definition, there are far more slaves now than there were victims of the Atlantic slave trade. Estimates indicate that between 27–46 million people currently live in conditions of forced bondage (ILO and Global Slavery Index, 2017). However, some researchers believe the actual figures are 10 times as large (Re, 2012).

The countries with the highest absolute numbers of people in modern slavery are India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan – the majority of which provide the low-cost labour that produces consumer goods for markets in Western Europe, Japan, North America and Australia (Global Slavery Index, 2017).

Forced labour has broad social and economic costs, in terms of impeding economic development and increasing or perpetuating poverty. Modern slavery doesn’t only come in the obvious form in which one person owns another person (traditionally called “chattel slavery”). However, in November 2017, video footage emerged showing African migrants and refugees being sold in open slave markets in Libya. Modern slavery has become so entrenched that “only business, consumers and government together become a powerful enough force to overcome it” (Forrest, 2018)

Even in Australia, it is estimated that up to 4,300 people are enslaved, primarily in the sex industry and the agriculture, construction, hospitality, cleaning and domestic work sectors. Migrants from China, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, and those on working holidays or dependent on their employers for their visas, are most at risk.

The Australian Government recently presented the Modern Slavery Bill to Parliament, using the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 as a model. When enacted, it will address the most extreme forms of exploitation throughout global supply chains. Businesses with revenues over AU$100 million will henceforth have to publish a statement setting out “their structure, operations and supply chains; potential modern slavery risks; actions taken to address these risks; and how they assess the effectiveness of their actions.” Affecting roughly 3,000 companies, these annual slavery statements will have to be signed off at board level, and published within six months of their annual reports.

The government will publish its own annual Commonwealth procurement statement, and A Modern Slavery Business Engagement Unit, housed within the Department of Home Affairs, will be established to help businesses address slavery in their supply chains and operations. Although the introduction of the Bill is a significant milestone and, when enacted, will be only the second national modern slavery act in the world, there have been calls for the Bill to go further.

Practices that Constitute Modern Slavery

  • People, sex and child sex trafficking – the UN claims that people trafficking is the third-largest global criminal industry, behind drugs and arms trafficking (UN Global Compact). Trafficking involves transporting, recruiting or harbouring people for the purpose of exploitation, using violence, threats or coercion.
  • Forced labour (including State labour).
  • Bonded labour or debt bondage.
  • Captive domestic servitude.
  • Forced child labour.
  • Recruitment and use of child soldiers.
  • Forced marriage and sexual servitude (Global Slavery Index, 2017).

Figures Depicting the Scope of Modern Slavery

  • 1 in 4 Modern Slaves is a child (Global Slavery Index 2017).
  • Women and girls make up 71% of all slaves (Ibid.).
  • 168 million children worldwide are in slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and other illicit activities (International Labour Organisation). (Bonded labour or debt bondage is when a person’s work is the security for a debt – effectively the person has not been sold, but they are on “a long lease” which they cannot bring to an end, and so cannot leave their “employer.” The conditions of employment can be such that the labourer can’t pay off their debt and is stuck for life, because of low wages, deductions for food and lodging, and usurious interest rates. The debt may be inherited by other family members who are then themselves forced into bonded labour. Many children become bonded labourers because of family poverty (Global Slavery Index 2017).
  • 72 million children are in hazardous work that directly endangers their health, safety and moral development (Ibid.).
  • 114 million child labourers are below the age of 14 (Ibid.).
  • 300,000 children are estimated to serve as child soldiers, some younger than 10 years old (UNICEF).
  • 15.5 million girls under the age of 8 are in domestic work worldwide (ILO).

Child Slavery Definitions

  • Children used by others for profit, often through violence, abuse and threats, in prostitution or pornography, forced begging, petty crime and the drug trade.
  • Forced child labour.
  • Children forced to take part in armed conflicts, as child soldiers, porters and girls taken for the sexual use of soldiers and militia members.
  • Children forced into sexual servitude or marriage.
  • The transfer of a child to another person for bonded labour.
  • “Adopting” children in order to use them as workers.
  • “Hazardous work,” the worst form of child labour, irreversibly damages children’s health and development through exposure to dangerous machinery and/or toxic substances, endangering their lives (Global Slavery Index, 2017).