What is

Modern Slavery?

Most people know of the notorious Transatlantic slave trade that ‘started’ in the mid-17th Century and ‘ended’ across the British Empire by 1833 (though slaves have been kept for thousands of years – think the Roman Empire – and other countries kept the trade going till the late 1880s).  By then between 10 and 12 million people had been violently stolen from Africa and transported in unspeakable suffering to slave in the Americas and West Indies.

However, slavery did not simply end in the 19th century but morphed into new forms (it literally ‘modernised’) and is as insidious and cruel now as it was then.

While there is no universal definition of modern slavery it can be broadly summarised as:

Vulnerable people being controlled subtly or by force by others for commercial profit or gain.

Modern slavery is less about the actual ownership of people (although this can be found) but about being exploited often through subtle means like debt bondage or family / cultural ties. People are controlled so they cannot leave a situation without major penalty, disadvantage or retaliation.

Slavery has been modernised – from kidnapping, sailing ships, slave markets and chains, though these still occur – to online recruitments ads, airports, false documents and massive debts to recruiters or ‘employers’ which can never be fully repaid.

Types of modern slavery

There are many forms of modern slavery, including:

Forced labour – any work or services which people are forced to do against their will under the threat of some form of punishment.

Debt bondage or bonded labour – the world’s most widespread form of slavery, when people borrow money they cannot repay and are required to work to pay off the debt, then losing control over the conditions of both their employment and the debt.

Human trafficking – involves transporting, recruiting or harbouring people for the purpose of exploitation, using violence, threats or coercion.

Descent-based slavery– where people are born into slavery because their ancestors were captured and enslaved; they remain in slavery by descent.

Child slavery (or the Worst Forms of Child Labour) – People often confuse child slavery with child labour, but it is much worse. Whilst child labour is harmful for children and can hinder their education and development, child slavery occurs when a child is exploited for someone else’s gain. Child slavery, or the Worst Forms of Child Labour, can include child trafficking, child soldiers, child marriage and child domestic slavery.

Forced and early marriage – when someone is married against their will and cannot leave the marriage. Most child marriages can be considered slavery. 

Source: Anti-slavery International

In Australia, modern slavery is a crime with heavy fines and prison terms attached.
An overview of Australian Human Trafficking and Slavery can be found on the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions website here.

Modern slavery statistics

The most often quoted figure for the number of slaves or people working in slavery-like conditions globally is over 40million people. Refer to the Global Slavery Index here. Two-thirds of these people live and work in the Asia Pacific region – a major source of goods and services for Australian businesses.

Nearly 75% of people trapped in slavery are women or young girls and one in four are children.

The Global Slavery Index estimate of the number of people enslaved in Australia is 15000. The official figure published by the Australian Government  is less than 2000, based largely on the number of victims identified in recent years.


Modern slavery vs exploitation of workers

There is considerable debate about what constitutes ‘modern slavery’ as opposed to ‘exploitation’. This is an important distinction as the response by businesses and regulators is very different. Exploitation and modern slavery sit on a continuum. Both have serious consequences, however the impact of slavery on the lives of people is generally greater, deeper and more prolonged.

Broadly speaking exploitation is where an employee performs tasks for which they are not adequatley compensated. They made be paid below award wages, work excessive hours and not be provided with sufficient breaks or leave. However, exploited workers by definition are able to leave their job at any time, even if they lose pay or other entitlements, without retaliation towards them, their co-workers or their family.

Underpayment – sometimes referred to as wage theft – is a common exploitative practice known to occur across many industry sectors, including the cleaning and hospitality sectors. While exploitation is not, by definition modern slavery, it may be a precursor to slavery-like conditions.

Modern slavery has a much greater impact on the worker and on their family. The following criteria may be associated with people trapped in slavery or slavery-like conditions:

  • forced to work through threats (physical or mental) or other types of coercion against them, their co-workers or their families;
  • trapped in a situation with no way of leaving (including debts to the employer or their agents);
  • dominated and controlled by a supervisor or ’employer’;
  • dignity is stripped away and they are dehumanised, treated as a property or bought, sold or shared between workplaces;
  • physically constrained or have restricted freedom of movement.

Workers trapped in these types of situations are at-risk of serious harm and, on discovery, businesses must react swiftly often involving law enforcement authorities.

The challenge for businesses is to determine the ‘red line’ where exploitation morphs into modern slavery. They must determine what steps they will take to stop the harm, mitigate the risk and remedy the impact to workers.

How do people end up slaves?

People of any age, gender, social situation or race can end up in modern slavery. However it is often the most vulnerable people who end up trapped in slavery. Women and children (especially girls), migrants, refugees or people from minority groups are particularly vulnerable.

People living in poverty, without decent jobs may be offered work by recruiters or potential employers and may be lured overseas by the promise of great jobs and higher rates of pay. When they arrive at their destination or workplace, the situation is often very different.

In developed economies, homeless people and those from lower socio-economic groups, as well as ex-prisoners and those addicted to substances are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

People who are unfamiliar with a country’s legal system, who don’t know their rights or don’t speak the local language are vulnerable to exploitation or slavery. They may also be working illegally or hold the wrong visa and can be threatened with deportation or be handed to authorities.

Slavery is more likely to occur in countries where the laws are weak or not enforced – especially laws related to labour rights and human rights – and where corruption is a ‘normal’ part of doing business.

Slavery is not just found overseas or in developing countries. It is everywhere, including in Australia, where it is estimated that 15,000 people live and work in slavery or slavery-like conditions.

Where are the risk factors?

International reports, studies and research programs identify three key risk factors for modern slavery:

  • Geography: the country or location a good or service is sourced or made
  • Industry sector: the type of industry or commercial enterprise making or providing the good or service
  • Commodity: the good or service itself or its component parts

Geography is the predominant factor used to determine the risk of modern slavery. This includes countries or regions with:

  • weak laws (especially human rights or workplace laws);
  • institutionalised corruption;
  • cheap and plentiful labour;
  • abundant and accessible natural resources; and/or
  • a clear class divide (‘employers’ and ‘workers’ with its associated power imbalance).

Modern slavery is not restricted to developing countries, although the scale and extent of it is more significant in developing countries. Slavery is also found in more advanced economies, including in the United States, throughout Europe, the UK and Australia. Numerous examples of this have been documented in the UK, France, Italy, Turkey, United States, Spain, Greece, Korea and numerous other developed countries.

The Global Slavery Index provides a country by country analysis of the prevalence of modern slavery risk factors.

The second key risk factor is the industry sector involved in producing the good or service. Numerous studies have been undertaken internationally and examples of slavery associated with specific industry sectors (including cleaning, hospitality, construction, security) have been well documented. Key modern slavery indicators associated with high-risk sectors include:

  • reliance on large quantities of low-cost labour;
  • poor working conditions (the ‘3D’s’: Dirty, Dull and Dangerous jobs);
  • unskilled labourers often with low levels of education;
  • low pay or cash payment;
  • irregular or part time jobs often with a high turnover of workers.

Some of the high risk industry sectors for modern slavery include:

  • Agriculture
  • Building, construction and demolition
  • Clothing and footwear
  • Electronics
  • Facility maintenance (e.g. cleaning and security)
  • Fishing or aquaculture
  • Food and food processing
  • Forestry
  • ICT
  • Manufacturing (multiple sectors)
  • Mining, refining and smelting
  • Services (multiple sectors)
  • Software coding
  • Wholesale and retail (multiple sectors)
  • Transport and logistics
  • Waste management

The third risk factor is the actual commodity or the goods themselves. When considering whether a good has been produced with slavery, the entire supply chain (right back to raw materials) needs to be considered. This could include minerals, cotton, timber, chemicals (e.g. plastic), meat, vegetables, fruit, steel, aluminium, paper etc – the list goes on.

There are literally tens of thousands of products that have been associated with modern slavery – too many to list here. For a comprehensive list of products at risk of modern slavery check out the US Department of Labor resource.

Modern slavery is also associated with the delivery of services. People most frequently associate trafficking of people –largely women and girls – with the commercial sex industry and brothel workers.  However, many other more ‘mainstream’ service sectors may be associated with slavery. These include cleaning, security, hospitality, retail and wholesale workers, transport (seafarers, truck drivers etc), warehousing, call centres, car washes, nail bars and beauty therapy and numerous others.


it’s important to business

Being linked to slavery practices will impact reputation, brand value and your social licence to operate. Directors and managers must understand and address the potential or actual harm caused to workers across their value chain.


you need
to do

While modern slavery is a relatively new issue for the business community, most companies already have systems and processes in place that can help address the issue. With the right tools, knowledge and resources, taking the first step is not as challenging as it looks.


we can
help you

Supporting businesses to understand modern slavery or human rights risks, identify gaps in systems and processes and develop practical action plans is second nature to us. It’s what we’ve been doing for more than 25 years. We’re here to help.

Contact us for a free demonstration

Contact us for a free demonstration