Rise in modern slavery means government and business must do more

By Nathan Kennedy and Meg Lee

The International Labour Organization, the United Nations International Organization for Migration and Walk Free recently released the Updated Global Estimates Of Modern Slavery report. It makes for concerning reading. Based on 2021 global estimates there are approximately 50 million people in situations of modern slavery on any given day and this number has increased since previous estimates were released in 2017. These numbers include people in forced labour or people in forced marriages.

Through the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the global community has committed to ending modern slavery by 2030. An increase in modern slavery suggests that an increase in efforts to combat modern slavery is needed if the global community is to meet its goals.

There are 27.6 million people in situations of forced labour on any given day and of this more than 3.3 million are children. There has been an increase of 2.7 million people in forced labour between 2016 and 2021. This was driven entirely by forced labour in the private economy.

The Asia and the Pacific region, our own backyard, is host to 15.1 million people in forced labour, more than half of the global total. Sixty-three per cent of forced labour occurs in the private economy in sectors other than commercial sexual exploitation. The five sectors accounting for the majority of total adult forced labour are services (excluding domestic work), manufacturing, construction, agriculture (excluding fishing) and domestic work. People in forced labour are more likely to be in manufacturing and much more likely to be in construction.

Disturbingly, over half of all children in forced labour are in commercial sexual exploitation and the remainder are found in domestic work, agriculture and manufacturing.

There are also 3.9 million people in State-imposed forced labour at any point in time.

Although the principal responsibility for ending modern slavery lies with governments, a whole-of-society approach is needed and this includes businesses. One way business can help is to combat forced labour in operations and supply chains. Attention should focus on identifying, prioritising and acting on ‘hotspots’ where the risk of forced labour and other human rights abuses is highest. Particular attention should be paid to the informal micro and small enterprises operating at the lower links of supply chains in high-risk sectors and locations.

Businesses should also be alive to instances of State-imposed forced labour, ensuring that their supply chains are free from goods or services tainted by it. The recent UN report on Xin Jiang province in China has revealed the extent of State-forced labour in that province. Academics such as Professor Justine Nolan have written that it is now no longer possible for businesses to claim plausible deniability on the issue. The report identifies ‘labour transfer schemes’ where people from Xin Jian work elsewhere in China. Professor Nolan notes this means ‘goods produced in factories throughout China may be tainted with modern slavery.’

It is expected that laws governing businesses’ respect for human rights throughout business operations and supply chains will be a key way for governments to combat modern slavery. A number of States have adopted voluntary provisions on human rights due diligence in business operations and supply chains and some have begun introducing laws mandating enterprises to carry out human rights due diligence. It can be expected that these types of laws will continue to be implemented around the world.

In Australia, the Modern Slavery Act is currently under review (you can read our update on that). It is expected that the Modern Slavery Act will be strengthened with the Albanese Government previously announcing they are committed to introducing penalties for non‑compliance. The Foreign Minister has also recently stated that the Modern Slavery Act will be one of the ways that supply chains can be used to ensure Australia doesn’t promote or condone or financially support forced labour.

With the rise in modern slavery, businesses should expect increased requirements for human rights due diligence in their supply chains and greater scrutiny on how they act on the findings and communicate those efforts. This is in addition to the rise of regulator, shareholder, investor, employee and financier expectations and scrutiny of company environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies and commitments. It is timely that companies undertake a review of these, along with their human rights due diligence.


Nathan Kennedy

Nathan Kennedy

Partner, Head of Pro Bono & Community and ESG Co-Lead

Nathan is the firm's Head of Pro Bono & Community, his practice covers employment, administrative law and human rights.

Meg Lee

Meg Lee

Partner & ESG Co-Lead

Meg has over 20 years' experience as a property & projects lawyer, specialising in planning and environment law.

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