Geopolitics

5 actions to help leaders combat modern slavery in Europe and beyond

Modern slavery and human trafficking warning at Berlin's central station.

Modern slavery and human trafficking warning at Berlin's central station. Image: REUTERS/Annegret Hilse.

Mirek Dušek
Managing Director, World Economic Forum
Louise Thompson
Community Lead, World Economic Forum
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Geopolitics

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • An estimated 50 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.
  • In Europe more collective actions have been taken in than in any other continent.
  • The World Economic Forum highlights five frontier areas to help leaders tackle this growing issue.

This week, the grave global concern of human trafficking and modern slavery is once again on the agenda of world leaders at the 2024 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters.

An estimated 50 million people worldwide are victim in some form to modern slavery and human trafficking according to the 2021 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Despite the existence of a comprehensive legislative framework and international targets, the Global Commission on Modern Slavery & Human Trafficking reports that these numbers are not only increasing, but prosecution rates are also slowing down.

Factors contributing to this issue remain multifaceted – from conflict to climate migration, to economic disparities and social vulnerabilities. To combat the complex, transnational nature of human trafficking and modern slavery, and its many and varied causes, it is clear we need effective partnerships and cooperation.

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Industry change-makers

On the industry side, a number of business leaders have taken steps towards combatting human trafficking and modern slavery. For example, HPE has focused on supplier recruitment with its Migrant Worker Standard for nearly 10 years and continues to explore innovative solutions. It is now looking at how artificial intelligence (AI) and data analysis can identify patterns and causes, allowing for early intervention and support.

Having a bank account helps vulnerable members of society better safeguard their finances and improve their chances of finding formal employment; to that end HSBC is working with a number of charities to provide bank accounts to survivors, helping them rebuild their lives and find a job in the UK, even without a valid proof of address. Other organizations are seeking to address the socioeconomic conditions that cause trafficking through skills training and employability efforts. Yet it is clear that further collaboration and many more initiatives are needed if we are to meet UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 which seeks to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking by 2030.

Focus on Europe, to end modern slavery

More collective actions have been taken in Europe than in any other continent. Working closely with the ILO, the European Commission has long committed to prohibiting modern slavery in Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Europe has also introduced a range of support services, funding and accountability measures. Further, by proposing a ban on products made with forced labour from circulating in the EU market, and moving towards compulsory corporate sustainability due diligence, the Commission is sending a strong signal to its member states and the EU’s trade partners on where it stands.

Yet the problem remains pervasive in many European countries – with migrant workers particularly vulnerable. Enforcement in the EU is also a challenge, as people and goods flow freely across borders while police and judicial cooperation is slower to follow.

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Frontier actions for leaders in 2024

Business leaders are aware of the need to get ahead of the emerging legislative context on forced labour, but don’t know how to begin. As the urgency to address the issue intensifies, there are concerted efforts that business and other leaders can take together. To this end, we look at five frontier actions against human trafficking in Europe for business and other leaders to take:

1. Partner along the supply chain

The complexity of global supply chains inadvertently enables exploitative practices. Businesses recognise the need to prioritise transparency throughout their supply chains, however implementing due diligence measures across countries, continents and tiers of suppliers is an elaborately complex task. Forging alliances with NGOs, governments and industry peers can help leaders crowd-source expertise and spot risks together, facilitating best practices, overcoming blind spots, sharing resources, and amplifying calls to their suppliers.

2. Harness technological innovation

If used ethically, and with appropriate safety measures in place, the power of digital applications and AI can be applied to intervene at many points in the trafficking cycle – from identifying cases, to rescuing victims, predicting hotspots, and spotting traffickers. Using these tools offers many benefits to tackling such a complex problem, but they must be applied collaboratively – with cross-sector input and close attention to human judgement and compassion.

3. Purposeful leadership

The drive towards corporate environmental sustainability has been so unanimous because leaders across the board have been willing to stand up for the issue, mobilising their organizations and creating the conditions for success. Strong leadership is even more important for such a delicate topic as human trafficking, where humans are at its core. Leaders who bring a deep awareness and understanding of the issue, with a willingness to use their platform to call for change, are the most successful. By inspiring others, raising awareness, and emphasising ethical practices, business leaders can empower their workforce and peers, ensuring the issue remains on the agenda. By collaborating with experts, survivors and leading policy-makers, leaders can be confident that their calls to action are well-intentioned and have the full support of the community behind them.

4. Responsible recruitment

From protecting workers rights to responsible recruitment practices across supply chains are a vital guard against human trafficking. Yet international, cross-sector collaboration is required if these practices are to be strengthened, regulated and standardised across industries and nations. Leaders must be alert to the risks within their own practices, while helping others spot their risks, and produce shared industry standards to address these gaps head on.

5. An enabling environment for small and medium-sized enterprises

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of the European economy, representing 99% of all businesses in the EU. By creating an environment that fosters SME growth, governments, NGOs and international bodies can significantly reduce the vulnerability of individuals to trafficking, by addressing the economic root causes that contribute to trafficking, but also by promoting sustainable development, and creating formal employment opportunities and ethical business practices within communities. From policy support, to helping maintain supply chain integrity amongst resource strapped smaller entities there are many avenues for leaders to come together and create more favourable conditions for smaller businesses to thrive.

Towards a more humane future

Human trafficking and modern slavery remain profound challenges demanding immediate and sustained action. Businesses, equipped with their resources, influence, and innovation, possess a unique opportunity to drive meaningful change. By taking actionable steps, fostering collaborations, and promoting transparency, business and other leaders can contribute significantly to the global fight against trafficking, paving the way for a more ethical and humane future.

The World Economic Forum continues to be a platform for leaders to share insights and innovations in tackling this crisis. For more information on Forum activities related to Action Against Trafficking in Europe, please contact Yondeen Sherpa, Community Specialist, Civil Society at aate@weforum.org or your Forum counterpart.

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GeopoliticsDavos AgendaSupply Chain and TransportEuropean Union
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