We all have a role in tackling modern slavery

Modern slavery and human trafficking is thought to be the world’s joint third-largest criminal enterprise. It is not a faraway problem: it is vital that every business and organisation understands this crime and how to prevent it.


Globally, there are more people trapped in slavery today than at any point in human history. It’s happening close to home too, with estimates putting the number of victims in the UK at anything up to 136,000.

What do we mean by modern slavery? It’s where someone is forced by threats, violence or coercion to work for little or no pay, with no power to control what work they do or where they do it.

Modern slavery includes forced sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, domestic servitude, criminal exploitation and organ harvesting. Many definitions also include forced marriage.

It’s closely linked with human trafficking, which is the recruitment, movement, receipt or harbouring of people by means such as threat, force, fraud, coercion, abduction or deception, or abuse of a position of power or vulnerability, with the intention of exploiting them.

Modern slavery and human trafficking are barbaric violations of an individual’s human rights, with control maintained and applied through violence and its threat, usually for profit but also for sexual or other benefits for the exploiter.

Modern slavery and human trafficking is thought to be the world’s joint third-largest criminal enterprise, making $150.2 billion in illegal profits for criminals, after counterfeiting and drug trafficking and on a similar scale to illegal logging. It is a hidden crime, but the best estimates suggest there are 40.3 million people in modern slavery.

Of these people, 16.3 million of them are in some forced labour in private or state-run companies. That is why so many businesses and HR professionals are beginning to take modern slavery far more seriously – because it exists in the supply chains of so many businesses, often without them being aware.

Labour exploitation is the abuse of people in a workplace for profit. The impact is often devastating. Legitimate – and sometimes large-scale – businesses and employers can be “infiltrated” by exploiters, who introduce victims of labour exploitation into their labour supply chains, either directly or through labour providers or recruitment agencies. They act as unlicensed gangmasters.

Industries assessed as being at significant risk of this (owing to their scale, the nature of the work itself and the high attrition or low retention rates of staff) include: warehouses and logistics; construction and contracting; cleaning and facilities management; the care industry; agriculture, fishing and food production; and waste management and recycling.

However, there are also instances of labour exploitation whereby employers and labour users are more likely to be actively complicit in the exploitation. This is most common at businesses including: car washes; nail bars; restaurants and takeaways; and the textile and garment manufacture industry.

Understanding the fluid nature of vulnerability is crucial, as exploitation can happen to anybody. Victims of exploitation are growing more diverse. People who may have been viewed as ‘lower risk’ can just as easily be groomed and exploited. A person may be vulnerable if, as a result of their current or previous situation or circumstances, they are unable to protect themselves or others from harm or exploitation. It’s important to remember that the nature and extent of someone’s vulnerability can change over time, in response to social, environmental and personal factors.

There are also factors called ‘structural vulnerabilities’ where someone’s circumstances places them at heightened risk. This includes things like family breakdown; long-term unemployment; having recently left the military, prison or similar environment; or issues with debt or a criminal record.

Other factors placing people at higher risk of being trafficked include: exclusion or absence from education; being in care or a care leaver; having peer influences with connections to gangs or criminality; communication difficulties or a learning disability; neurodiversity; people experiencing difficulties with their mental or physical health or with addiction and dependency; past or ongoing experience of trauma; or homelessness or insecure housing situation.

To reiterate, exploitation can happen to anyone. But the above experiences and circumstances may increase, create or intensify vulnerability owing to the fact that they are likely to increase the level of risk people are exposed to in their daily lives, influence the thought processes and behaviours developed to cope with difficult experiences, and possibly lead people to view exploitation as a normal, expected or unavoidable part of life.

So when a human trafficker spots a vulnerability or something they think they can exploit, what methods they use? They will employ various forms of manipulation, force, fraud, and coercion to control and exploit victims. We often see the use of: debt bondage, involving the creation and enforcement of debt or pseudo-debt; offers of non-existent work opportunities or charging for access to work; offering legitimate work but then seizing wages; offering false promises of love (usually men targeting vulnerable women, which is why this is often referred to as the “boyfriend model”) or marriage; psychological coercion, dehumanisation and enforcing isolation from friends, family, loved ones and peers; and emotional manipulation; and control of travel or ID documents.

As control escalates, or if a person tries to resist, traffickers also use tactics like the threat of arrest or deportation; ‘shame’ or ‘honour’ as a means of manipulation; blackmail and threats of violence towards the person or their loved ones; fabricating familial ties, such as lying about a victim’s relationship to the exploiter; creating an emotional attachment to exploiters (as with ‘Stockholm syndrome’). In the most extreme scenarios, we have seen cases of abduction; physical restraints such as locks; and physical and sexual violence.

Where does the demand come from that leads criminals to exploit and control human beings in this way? It can be individual and opportunistic demand for cheap labour; or the purchase of sexual services; or systemic corporate and governmental decisions that create pressure within individual markets for highly exploitable forms of labour.

Many corporations operating on a national or global scale no longer own their production processes, and in many cases can have thousands of individual suppliers. This creates huge downward pressure on working conditions, allowing large corporations to dictate value and processes within a market, lowering the share of value available to suppliers and their workers as wages. Outsourcing fragments responsibility for labour standards and makes oversight and accountability very difficult; especially when labour supply is outsourced to small suppliers who may rely on using unfair labour practices to generate profit.

Consumer demand for low-cost goods, delivered quickly and cheaply, has led to a business model of downward pressure, placing costs and time pressures on suppliers and creating a ‘race to the bottom’ in trying to pitch the lowest bid. This can lead to risky practices like unauthorised subcontracting or non-payment of wages.

Weak governance and enforcement opens up spaces for bad practice. Laws designed to protect workers are inconsistently enforced in the UK and many other countries, while exploiters are adaptable and entrepreneurial in their methods, and will always seek to circumvent mechanisms for detection.

The key players in most situations of modern slavery can be thought of as the perpetrator, the victim and the consumer. For forced labour in business supply chains, ‘consumer’ can mean both the business that is benefiting from that exploitation somewhere in its supply chain (through lower costs or higher margins), or a person buying products or services from that business.

Section 54 of the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires organisations with an annual turnover over £36m to prepare and publish a Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement each year. This statement must set out the steps the organisation has taken to ensure modern slavery is not taking place in their business or supply chains.

There is now a public register of these statements, and it is strongly encouraged – though not yet mandatory – for businesses to add their own annual modern slavery statements to the register.

This legislation aims to increase transparency within supply chains, allowing the public, consumers, employees and investors to know what steps an organisation is taking to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking, and to encourage public scrutiny of organisation’s policies and procedures in this area. A survey of business leaders showed that 77% of them expect to find modern slavery in their operations or supply chains.

*Hope for Justice is a charity founded in the UK in 2008 which now works globally from more than 30 locations to help the victims and survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking.

Sign up for a subscription or buy a single copy and 25% will be donated to Hope for Justice.

Find out more – Hope for Justice

    Read more

    Latest News

    Read More

    So why is EDI an inevitable disappointment?

    29 November 2023


    Receive the latest HR news and strategic content

    Please note, as per the GDPR Legislation, we need to ensure you are ‘Opted In’ to receive updates from ‘theHRDIRECTOR’. We will NEVER sell, rent, share or give away your data to third parties. We only use it to send information about our products and updates within the HR space To see our Privacy Policy – click here

    Latest HR Jobs

    University of Bristol – Professional Services Staff DevelopmentSalary: £29,605 to £32,982 per annum

    Edge Hill University – Regulatory, Assurance & Governance UnitSalary: £27,181 to £29,605 per annum pro rata

    Loughborough University – Organisational Development and Change DirectorateSalary: £45,585 to £54,395 per annum pro rata. Subject to annual pay award.

    Start Date: 2023-11-09. Head of HR Operations | 6 month contract | Immediate Start | Nottinghamshire | up to £65,000. Other roles you may have

    Read the latest digital issue of theHRDIRECTOR for FREE

    Read the latest digital issue of theHRDIRECTOR for FREE