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OPINION: How to identify and prevent forced labour in global supply chains

by Jessica McGoverne | Sedex
Monday, 18 October 2021 11:34 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A worker is seen in a coffee farm during a labor ministry operation to identify workers in conditions analogous to slavery, in Campos Altos, Minas Gerais State, Brazil August 12, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Organisations must always consider the possibility that forced labour is occurring, particularly if their supply chains are long, multi-tiered, and range across several countries

By Jessica McGoverne, Director of Policy and Corporate Affairs at Sedex

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) most recent figures estimate that 24.9 million people are in forced labour, and that the majority (64%) are in private sector employment. At a time when supply chains are facing increasing operational pressure, and there’s huge consumer awareness about worker conditions, organisations need to prove they’re doing their utmost to uphold human rights in their supply chain.

However, despite the pressure to tackle forced labour, this form of exploitation is notoriously difficult to detect. Our latest report looked into over 100,000 social audits conducted across 158 countries over the past five years. The analysis reveals, for the first time, the true scale and scope of forced labour indicators in global supply chains.

Identifying and preventing forced labour

Across the globe, businesses turn to social audits to help them identify forced labour risks in their operations and supply chains, to support their business to operate responsibly. These audits provide organisations with an initial snapshot of the conditions at a supplier’s work site. They help to highlight individuals trapped in exploitation or requiring urgent assistance, using a series of indicators related to forced labour as defined by the ILO.

These indicators, which are essentially “red flags” or alert signs, include practices such as deception, withheld wages, restriction of movement, excessive overtime, and abusive working or living conditions.

The report findings reveal that 36% of audits found multiple indicators (two or more) of forced labour.  While it was known that forced labour is an under-identified issue, this figure being over a third of the sizable data sample is a truly serious revelation.

Perhaps most significantly, frequent use of excessive overtime was the most common forced labour indicator found (24% of all indicators). While the use of overtime is not in itself problematic, excessive and illegal overtime can be exploitative. This exploitation increases the risk of forced labour occurring, particularly if it is accompanied by forms of coercion and workers do not feel that overtime is voluntary.

The findings echo a growing concern among businesses keen to address forced labour risks in their supply chains yet struggling with the complexity of the issue, and the challenge of identifying it with certainty. Here there are a few key considerations.

Firstly, no business is immune from the risk that forced labour may exist within their supply chain. Our findings and our risk assessment data indicate that forced labour can occur in every region, and every business sector. Organisations must always consider the possibility that forced labour is occurring, particularly if their supply chains are long, multi-tiered, and range across several countries.

Secondly, more indicators were found in countries predicted to have greater risks of labour rights violations, based on the data collected from our risk assessment tool. This supports the view that taking a risk-based approach to human rights due diligence, in line with the United Nation Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), can help companies allocate their resources to tackle forced labour more effectively.

And finally, organisations must continue to conduct social audits alongside other forms of assessment across their supply chains. Social audits play a valuable role in helping businesses identify human rights risks through highlighting forced labour indicators, and we urge companies to appreciate the significance of these. When found, the presence of these indicators means there is an increased likelihood of forced labour occurring at a work site.

It is therefore essential that companies pay attention when an assessment identifies these, to decide whether further investigation or action is needed. Identifying forced labour is complex – the data available from one assessment may not always tell the full story – and it is only by combining multiple tools for detection, including different forms of direct worker engagement, that organisations can build a robust picture of the risks workers face.

With millions of individuals working in sub-standard conditions, forced labour is an ever-present concern – and one made worse by the global disruption of the past two years. But businesses can protect workers and be powerful agents of change, by recognising that every forced labour indicator is an opportunity to improve conditions for the people in their supply chain.