Making workers' basic rights and freedoms real

Every day, all around the world, millions of workers are in modern slavery - which can be characterised by forced labour, recruitment fees, passport retention and debt bondage.

Companies everywhere risk involvement in modern slavery. Whilst the risks are particularly high in some regions of the world, workers in modern slavery can be found anywhere from the US and the UK to Bangladesh and South Africa.

The challenge for companies is rarely about will power. Business recognises that slavery is unacceptable, and many companies are demonstrating leadership in this area. The bigger challenge is finding effective ways to respond to this complex, systemic problem.  


What does addressing modern slavery look like in practice?

Ways to identify and understand modern slavery:

  • Work with experts to understand what modern slavery might look like in your company’s value chain.
  • Engage with business partners, for example when entering new business relationships or by auditing suppliers in high risk countries.
  • Seek to establish channels to communicate directly with workers, for example through worker voice programmes.

Ways to address modern slavery:

  • Identify priorities and set goals to focus your company’s (or industry’s) work.
  • Provide training and guidance resources to labour agencies and suppliers.
  • Collaborate with industry peers and key stakeholders to address underlying challenges.


What do the UN Guiding Principles say about modern slavery?

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights emphasise the need for companies to address systemic challenges and issues.

Key guidance relevant to addressing modern slavery includes:

  • Human rights due diligence should cover human rights impacts that a company may cause or contribute to, as well as those that may be directly linked to its operations, products or services.
  • To assess how best to respond to complex contexts, companies should draw on internal and external expertise, including through cross-functional consultation.
  • Appropriate action will vary according to whether the company caused, contributed to or is directly linked to the impact, as well as its leverage to address the situation.
  • A company’s responsibility to respect human rights exists independently of States’ abilities and/or willingness to fulfil their own human rights obligations – and is distinct from issues of legal liability and enforcement.

See Guiding Principles 11, 17, 19 and 23 for more.

Insights from business practice

  • Look at the whole system to understand the challenges and identify smart actions

    Understanding how and why modern slavery and related issues (e.g. payment of recruitment fees, passport retention, forced labour etc.) manifest in a company’s value chain can generate insights that lead to more effective interventions. This means getting to grips with the pressures, incentives and constraints that shape the actions of other stakeholders in the system. It can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, and may not be practicable for all companies. With deeper insights into the root cause challenges, you can devise more effective strategies to combat modern slavery.

    It also helps to be smart and opportunistic, leveraging situations in the company that can help achieve forward momentum and increase buy-in amongst key functions. For example, an executive with an interest in an aspect of the problem, or a colleague with a mandate to implement a mandatory audit or training programme. Sometimes the initiative or idea proposed may seem unlikely to solve the problem. But it could be a valuable opportunity to build commitment internally that can be used to drive change over time.

  • Worker voice tools are not a panacea, but can be valuable to boost visibility of issues

    Some companies are exploring the use of worker voice tools to improve access to information about conditions in suppliers’ facilities between audits, boost transparency and enhance risk analysis. These tools can supplement the information collected through audit processes.

    Where the tool involves a survey, it’s important to use questions that can be easily understood by workers, and that elicit information that can be confidently interpreted by the company. The usefulness of worker voice tools depends on workers’ trust. Building trust with suppliers is also important to implementing these tools effectively. It can be undermined if there is confusion about which mechanism (worker voice tool, supplier hotline, company hotline etc.) workers should use.

  • Interviews and conversations can deepen understanding of realities on the ground

    To really understand conditions on the ground, it may be important to interview workers and other stakeholders in person. In part, this is because documents and management communications may not be sufficient or practicable – particularly when examining the informal labour sector.

    There is also a reality that workers can be reluctant to communicate openly or trust mechanisms such as surveys. In-person discussions can enable rapport and trust to be built, creating an environment in which workers may be more comfortable speaking openly about their situation.

  • Collaborate with business partners to deliver training across the value chain

    Training initiatives delivered in collaboration with business partners, labour agencies and suppliers can help build a common understanding of the challenges and shared expectations of performance. When delivered in-person, these initiatives are also an opportunity for the company delivering the training to learn more about what’s happening on the ground, and the different pressures and incentives faced by entities in its value chain. Companies can also use collaborative training sessions to help map where and how modern slavery occurs in its value chain by bringing together individuals with visibility of different parts of the value chain.

    Where a company’s leverage with suppliers and other business partners is low, collaborating at an industry level can increase influence, enable the costs of delivering training to be shared, and communicate common expectations to suppliers. Basing training on key risks and real-life examples can help participants to understand what they need to do in practice.

  • Multistakeholder roundtables can help build alignment on ways forward

    Such roundtables can provide an opportunity to have a focused discussion with relevant government departments and ministries. They also enable multiple brands – as well as their suppliers and business partners – to deliver a consistent message to government, which can make a stronger impression. Finding common ground, such as a shared interest amongst stakeholders on supporting local companies to do business, can be a helpful starting point.

    Multistakeholder dialogues can also help identify where the “pain points” in the system are, and to focus minds on solving these challenges. Solutions will vary by country, industry and cultural context – working with suppliers and other partners can help build consensus on ways forward.

  • It can be helpful to leverage mandatory reporting and disclosure requirements

    Requirements such as the UK Modern Slavery Act have helped bring modern slavery – and the role of companies in addressing it – to the attention of companies everywhere. And by enhancing transparency about what companies are (or aren’t) doing to address modern slavery, these requirements create a potentially powerful driver for action and progress. In particular, practitioners find that these requirements can be a useful tool to get traction with senior executives, colleagues and business partners. However, it may be helpful to also ensure that focus on modern slavery does not distract from efforts to address other salient human rights risks.

  • Consider the unintended consequences when intervening in an existing system

    Companies need to learn first, then act – and share their learnings with others. Modern slavery is grounded in a complex system, and interventions can have unintended consequences. So, it’s important to learn what works and what doesn’t. Collaborating with others can help increase visibility of outcomes on the ground and speed up the learning process.

Looking forward: Eradicating slavery from global value chains

Companies have a powerful role in driving action to eradicate modern slavery and make real the fundamental rights and freedoms of workers.

Significant leadership has been shown by business and other stakeholders to tackle the complex challenges underlying modern slavery. And real progress has been made. Companies cannot solve this problem alone – and coordinated responses from business, governments and civil society are needed. All stakeholders, pulling in the same direction.

Places to start include:

  1. A stronger understanding of strategic leverage points in the system: We need to better understand the complexity of modern slavery – and the different ways it manifests in key regions and industries. And then work out what is needed to make that happen. Recognising that what works in one context might not in another. What are the leverage points and interventions that can drive outcomes across the system?

  2. Overcoming barriers to change: Identifying barriers to change is one challenge. Overcoming them is another – and needs alignment and coordination across diverse stakeholders. In particular, we need to find ways to drive and enable behaviour change at a very local level. And this means first understanding why each bit of the system currently operates as it does. And then working together to develop solutions.