You might think of slavery as a barbaric system from a bygone era. The deep and damaging scars are still visible, but thanks to the work of abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass, the practice itself has been wiped out.

But you’d be wrong. Today, nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labour. And there’s a good chance you’re benefitting from it.


Two recent investigations have uncovered the true extent of slavery in Thailand’s fishing and poultry industry, and many of the suppliers export to North America and Europe.

Reporters from the Associated Press found adults and children working in slave-like conditions, for little or no pay, peeling shrimp that ended up in well-known American supermarkets and restaurants: “AP reporters went to supermarkets in all 50 states and found shrimp products from supply chains tainted with forced labour.”

Just a few weeks ago, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation revealed migrants working in Thai poultry factories faced “widespread abuse” at the hands of their employers. Victims reported having their passports withheld and being forced to pay excessive recruitment fees. “Lots of these testimonies are indicators of trafficking for labour exploitation,” the investigators reported.

There’s big money being made in the industry of exploitation: $150 billion a year, according to ILO estimates, making it a more lucrative business than Apple. A large part of that – $51.8 billion – is generated in the Asia-Pacific region, home to 56% of victims of modern slavery.

Profits from slave labour

The size of the profits and the scale of the problem – three out of every 1,000 people around the world are victims of forced labour – leave many producers unsure how to tackle it. Increasingly complex supply chains make it even more challenging, says Wolfgang Lehmacher, Head of Supply Chain and Transport Industries at the World Economic Forum: “Production chains are more complex than ever before, so it’s difficult for businesses to have complete oversight. But unless companies can understand what is going on at each step, they run the risk of damaging their reputation and losing customer trust and brand value.”

Those businesses that manage to eradicate slavery from their supply chains stand to gain a huge competitive advantage. As much as customers like a bargain, according to research from Walk Free, the majority of people would be willing to pay more for an ethically-sourced product and would ditch a brand if they found slavery was part of their supply chain.

Perhaps companies affected by these latest scandals should take a leaf out of Nike’s book. After being targeted by activists in the 1990s, the apparel company set about rectifying many of the problems in its supply chains and now operates with “an openness and transparency that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago”, according to the Guardian. The move has paid off: once again this year, the company topped the Forbes list of most valuable sports brands in the world.

Have you read?
Let’s confine slavery to the history books
What is modern slavery?

Author: Stéphanie Thomson is an editor at the World Economic Forum

Image: Migrant workers work at a shrimp factory in Samut Sakhon on the outskirts of Bangkok March 22, 2007. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom