Campaigners march through London in 2017 with yellow gags with names of victims to highlight domestic slavery and human trafficking in the UK
Campaigners march through London in 2017 with yellow gags with names of victims to highlight domestic slavery and human trafficking in the UK © Steve Parkins/Alamy

The writer is co-founder of Walk Free, an international human rights organisation dedicated to eradicating slavery

The holiday season is a time of giving, to prioritise and care for the people we love. But even as we try to be generous and considerate, we can unintentionally prop up global enterprises that thrive off exploitation: modern slavery. 

As consumers we unknowingly interact with goods touched by slavery every day. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated international job insecurity and dangerous working conditions for vulnerable people around the world. There is a high likelihood that the clothing, food and electronics we buy have passed through a supply chain rife with slavery and exploitation. As we reflect on an extraordinary year, this festive season there is all the more reason to extend our care to the people who make the products we buy.

Slavery has always been a global problem. Americans sometimes refer to it as their country’s “original sin”. Europeans look back in horror at the way their ancestors plundered entire continents for riches. But implicit in both cases is the false idea that slavery is a legacy of the past. In fact, not only are the effects of historical slavery still felt today, there are also more people living in slavery now than at any time in history. 

Modern slavery may look very different to the way it did in the past, but it still involves humans being treated and traded as though they were a commodity. At its core, slavery is a manifestation of extreme inequality. The term includes a number of exploitative practices including forced labour, forced marriage, human trafficking, debt bondage and state-imposed forced labour as seen in China, North Korea and Eritrea. 

It is also tied to the disadvantages faced by women and girls around the globe, with women accounting for three-quarters of all victims of slavery. Walk Free’s latest report finds that one in every 130 women and girls is living in modern slavery. These are conservative estimates, as they do not take into account the severe ramifications of the pandemic. It is estimated Covid-19 will push a further 150m people into extreme poverty by 2021, which will only make them more vulnerable to exploitation.

Slavery only continues to exist because those with power and privilege allow it to. But more and more, investors, lenders and shareholders are demanding greater transparency from businesses on their labour practices. Purpose-driven companies have been shown increasingly to outperform their peers. A slavery-free supply chain makes for a more resilient and sustainable business, while safe and legal working conditions are linked to higher levels of worker productivity and better business performance. 

But important as it is for private actors to spot and abolish slavery from their businesses, governments must also codify strong anti-slavery provisions in law and should do so as part of their pandemic recovery. The most vulnerable are inordinately affected by economic disasters and providing legal protection can be a step towards ensuring greater resiliency in future. Legislation is not a cure-all, but it is a significant first step. And supply chain transparency, which must go hand-in-hand with accountability, is the bedrock for all other sustainable change.

The UN says that 189 countries have ratified the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. But only the UK and Australia have modern slavery acts focused on supply chains and 136 countries still fail to criminalise child and forced marriage.

Despite this, progress is possible. There are three key steps that governments should to take to address the disproportionate risk facing women and girls. First, every country must legislate against forced and child marriages, which deprive women and girls of control of their basic freedoms. Second, they must eradicate systems that cement and normalise the exploitation of migrant workers globally. Finally, both governments and businesses must prioritise supply chain transparency and guarantee a living wage, protecting workers’ economic freedoms.

As consumers, businesses and policymakers, we have the capacity, and responsibility, to end slavery. Convenience should never come at the cost of another person’s freedom. This holiday season, it will be near-impossible for a consumer to avoid goods touched by modern slavery, but that doesn’t have to continue to be our reality.

As we begin to rebuild after the pandemic, we must commit to proactively tackling the slavery risks present in so many of our global systems. 

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