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3 million people in forced labour in manufacturing supply chains

The number of people in modern slavery worldwide has increased significantly over the last five years, mostly in private sector supply chains, according to the latest research.


A landmark report by human rights group Walk Free and two UN agencies, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM), estimates that there are now 50 million adults and children living in modern slavery. This is 10 million more than 2016 estimates.

More than half of those in modern slavery live in forced labour conditions, defined as work imposed on a person against their will through the use of coercion. While some in this group are found in domestic work or illicit activities, the largest share (86 per cent) occurs in the private sector. The report reads:

“The largest share of privately-imposed forced [labour] occurs in business enterprises of all sizes linked to the broader market economy, in sectors including services, manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and mining and quarrying. This basic fact underscores the need for attention to business operations and supply chains – domestic and transnational.”

The manufacturing sector accounts for nearly one-fifth of all forced labour of adults – the second most of any sector after services. Unsurprisingly, most forced labour cases in manufacturing occur in the lowest tiers of production in supply chains.

Contrary to popular opinion, however, cases are not confined to supply chains in poorer countries. The ILO estimates that more than half of all forced labour worldwide is found in upper-middle income or high income countries. Despite this, surveys show that awareness of modern slavery in the UK remains low.

Manufacturers therefore need to be aware of potential risks both at home and abroad, as Senior Manufacturing and Sustainability Advisor Geoff Crossley has previously explained:

“The former is simpler because it’s about being aware who are you buying from directly. What do you know about them? Have you visited their factory? What evidence do you have that they follow the correct guidelines on working practices and conditions?

“Then there are modern slavery risks overseas. The prevalence of modern slavery in some regions can be significant. The most topical example at the moment is Xinjiang province in China, where the growing evidence of mass incarceration and forced labour of Uighur people is linked to the cotton industry. More than 80 per cent of China’s cotton trade is implicated and several well-known brands are now grappling with the reputational impact of sourcing from that region.”

To minimise risk as an importer, manufacturers are encouraged to use the Global Slavery Index, which provides broad data on the chances of modern slavery per 1,000 people in each country. A high index score is an indicator that businesses should undertake additional due diligence on suppliers in that region.

To minimise risk in the UK, modern slavery charity Unseen provides a free app that helps people and businesses to identify the warning signs and report concerns. Greater Manchester also has its own dedicated campaign, Programme Challenger, which provides further information on tackling modern slavery within the city region.

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