Food and Modern Slavery: What is behind your food?

The United Nations (UN) and Walk Free Foundation estimate that there are approximately 40 million victims of modern slavery around the world of which, 17 million are victims exploited in the private economy.

Statistically, modern slavery is most prevalent in Africa, followed by Asia and the Pacific, according to the Global Slavery Index. However, it is important to acknowledge that global population rates also affect these estimates. Thus, together, the top 10 most populous countries that represent more than half of the world’s populations: China, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines and Russia, comprise 60% of all the people living in modern slavery.

What is modern slavery?

A person today is considered enslaved if they are forced to work against their will; are owned or controlled by an exploiter or “employer”; have limited freedom of movement; or are dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as property, according to abolitionist group Anti-Slavery International. 

Human trafficking is just one way of enslaving someone. It usually involves the recruitment, transfer or obtaining of individual through coercion, abduction, fraud or force to exploit them. People may be trafficked into forced labour within their own countries or abroad.

Usually the victim is led to believe that they have been offered a well-paid job in a different city or country, only to find the job does not exist and they are now indebted to their “employer” or trafficker and must pay transportation, lodging and any other “fees” becoming victim into debt bondage.

Why does modern slavery happen?

More people are enslaved today than at any other time in history, exceeding by more three time the estimated 13 million people captured and sold as slaves between the 15th and the 19th centuries.

How can this be? Regrettably, the answer suggests that slavery is big business. Globally, slavery generates as much as $150bn (£116bn) in profits every year, more than one third of which ($46.9bn) is generated in developed countries, including the EU.

On average, a forced labourer generates about $8,000 profit annually for his or her exploiters.

The transformation of the global slave trade from a high-cost, slow-recruitment business to a low-cost, rapid-recruitment one is driving criminal interest in trafficking and slavery, which is why it is permeating every corner of the global economy.

Furthermore, modern migration flows, and global supply chains ruled by different legal system also mean that a large supply of vulnerable, exploitable people can be tapped into for global supply chains in the food, fashion and technology industries.

What are companies doing?

To better understand what companies are doing to address the risk of forced labor in their food and beverage supply chains, KnowTheChain  evaluated 38 of the largest global companies on their forced labor policies and practices.

The 2018 Food and Beverage Benchmark Findings Report finds that while many of the companies evaluated have policies and commitments in place, the majority do not provide evidence of those policies in practice. Furthermore, companies scored the lowest on worker voice and recruitment, indicating that little or no action is taken to listen to, engage with, or empower workers across company supply chains.

How can we all play a role in combating modern slavery?

 That slavery continues almost three centuries after the first attempts to eliminate it represents a catastrophic failure of capitalism and civilisation.

Legislations such as the UK Modern Slavery Act in combination with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have provided companies a set of guidelines to know what the potential human right risk in their supply chains are and show the concrete actions taken to mitigate and provide remedy to the victims.

Voluntary Sustainability Standard, such as the ProTerra Standard can serve companies to better select and monitor their business partners in the supply chain and consistently report reliable data in their Modern Slavery Statements.

At the same time, consumers and investors have to show companies, clear signals of their aversion against slavery and urge for effective changes for global trade, where human kind be never a commodity.