OpinionWalk Free18 Oct 2019

Private sector brings home global problem

Of the estimated 3.6 million victims of modern slavery across Europe and Central Asia, approximately 90 per cent are from the private sector. Corporations and businesses need to understand the signs and take action against modern slavery.

City Hall in Antwerp
City Hall in Antwerp, Belgium Photo Credit: Mario Gutiérrez..

This article was co-authored with Walk Free intern Linda O’Brien.

Within Europe, forced labour occurs every day in the domestic work, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, fishing, and sex industries. And with Europe importing nearly €2,000 billion worth of goods in 2018, every European is potentially contributing towards the scourge of modern slavery through the supply chains of the goods we purchase.

The Measurement, Action, Freedom report found that Europe had taken the most steps in addressing modern slavery and forced labour by strengthening criminal laws, providing some protections for exploited individuals, and by coordinating at the national and regional level.

National legislation such as Section 54 of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act and the 2017 French Corporate Duty of Vigilance law are steps in the right direction.

The UK Modern Slavery Act requires mandatory reporting from companies with a turnover of over £36 million per annum while the Corporate Duty of Vigilance law requires large businesses to directly address the company’s activities impact on the environment, health and security, and human rights. 

While countries are exploring options for mandatory reporting and mandatory due diligence, it remains to be seen if this legislation will have an impact on reducing modern slavery, and the lives of those exploited.

Walk Free’s independent assessment of government action toward eliminating modern slavery found that although steps are being taken to eliminate modern slavery from supply chains, these efforts are spearheaded by only a few European countries.

And while Europe is taking more action than any other region globally, with 90 per cent of victims of forced labour the private economy, there is an urgent need for governments to engage with the private sector.

One promising approach is the private-public partnership between the Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, and Australian governments which aims to address the financial sector’s approach to anti-slavery and anti-trafficking compliance and responsible investment.

The partnership released a Blue Print in September 2019 outlining how the financial sector can contribute to the eradication of modern slavery by reporting suspicious activity, supporting survivors to rebuild their lives, and using microfinance as a preventative measure.

If we are serious about eradicating modern slavery by 2030, European governments need to act with greater urgency to engage with business, hold companies to account, and actively enforce existing legislation and sectoral approaches.

Katharine Bryant
by Katharine Bryant
Research Manager at Walk Free and author of the Global Slavery Index. Katharine is based in London and oversees our assessment of policy and programmatic responses to modern slavery, including the government response component of the GSI. Katharine has worked in anti-slavery programming and research for ten years.
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