Working in the sustainable and ethical sphere for a while means that the subject of slavery will be raised eventually. Because we live in a globalised world, many of us have been in contact with supply chains that have some form of slavery hidden somewhere in the process. At this point, it’s unavoidable.

For this reason, I’ve chosen to regularly highlight International Justice Mission’s work, as their teams of experts have worked to eradicate slavery at source for decades.

One thing that has also become clear, during increased conversations, is how difficult it is to understand what slavery actually looks like. Recently IJM released a collection of studies that take a closer look at bonded labour, trafficking and slavery in different contexts. The studies give a deep and clear understanding of what slavery actually looks like in a modern-day context, and I decided to use this as an opportunity to help more people understand the realities of slave labour in industries we come into contact with.

IJM’s work

IJM staff currently work in 17 offices in 11 countries in the Global South. They partner with local law enforcement and government to provide protection and rescue while bringing perpetrators to justice in courts. They focus on cases of forced labour slavery, sex trafficking, child sexual assault, property grabbing, abusive detention and police brutality.

When it comes to labour trafficking, IJM has three focuses: cross-border trafficking, child slave labour and bonded labour. In each of these scenarios, different individuals are vulnerable. For example, In Ghana it’s children, in India it’s whole families, and in Thailand, men are trafficked across borders to work. However, every situation shares the same characteristics of slavery: violence, deception, and arduous and uncompensated labour.

Bonded labour is categorised as coerced, underpaid or unpaid work. Conditions are abusive and unsafe, and workers aren’t free to leave. The International Labour Organisation and Walk Free Foundation released a joint estimate of global slavery at 40.3 million people, with 24.9 million being victims of forced labour slavery.

Effective anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts are inherently challenging and even the most effective governments struggle to address the crime comprehensively. Worldwide convictions of human traffickers listed in this report were fewer than 10,000, while estimates of the number of victims of human trafficking remain in the tens of millions.


Most of these convictions were for sex trafficking, which is often more widely discussed. Labour slavery convictions number in the hundreds.

But what does labour slavery actually look like? Let’s look at some examples

Thai fishing industry

The Thai fishing industry is a $7 billion industry that employs about 354,000 fishermen. The majority of these workers are migrants from neighbouring countries, many of whom are unregistered or have unclear legal status. All fisherman are vulnerable to trafficking and abuse because working on boats can be dangerous, labour-intensive, isolating, and away from government oversight at sea. However unregistered migrant fishermen are particularly vulnerable because they lack official recognition by the government.

Public awareness of the labour abuses within the Thai fishing industry has grown in the last decade, increasing pressure on the Thai government and international businesses that import Thai seafood products to combat forced labour. However, it’s hard to get a full grasp on the prevalence of forced labour on Thai boats because the group is so frequently out to sea. One study was previously carried out, but it’s likely that these findings significantly underestimated the extent of the problem because of the limits from fishermen being hard to reach.

With this in mind, IJM commissioned three independent organisations to conduct separate studies to try to fill the gaps in knowledge around the problem. Here’s what they found:

  • 44% of respondents had experienced deception about the nature of the work (6.5%), forced detainment before beginning work (3.6%), being forced to continue work (31.5%) and/or being physically abused at work (14.1%).
  • 81% of fishermen who had worked on a Thai boat in the last five years had experienced the purpose element of trafficking, including never being paid for their work (9.3%), getting paid significantly less than what they agreed to (46%), excessive and unfair deductions from their wages (46.0%), and/or being forced to work 14 or more hours per day (73.4%).
  • 37.9% of fishermen surveyed had been trafficked in the past five years. Another nearly half (49.2%) of respondents were suspected trafficking victims, who had experienced either coercion or exploitation.
  • Only 12.9% reported having fair labour conditions at sea and experiencing no exploitative recruitment.
  • More than 90% of the respondents had to work seven days a week, and nearly 75% reported that they were forced to work 16 or more hours per day.
  • Respondents reported an average monthly wage of approximately $170 per month, while the legal monthly minimum wage in Thailand is approximately $257 per month. 45% of respondents received lower wages than they had agreed upon, and 9.6% were never paid. Employers also deducted $377 per month on average for expenses, with 39.2% of respondents reporting deductions from their pay that were unclear, unfair or excessive.
  • 18% of respondents were physically abused, while 35.8% of respondents had violent working conditions. 6.2% of respondents witnessed the murder of a crewmate at the hands of a supervisor, and 14.2% of respondents heard specific stories of such murders aboard their boats.

The nature of exploitation

There are also a few key factors that drive exploitation in this industry:

  • Debt bondage:
    The process of finding work, which often requires the use of a broker, can plunge migrant workers into debt which enslaves them to their work. In this study, 76.2% of respondents accrued debt before beginning work. 53.1% of respondents did not know how much debt they had accrued or for what they had been charged.
  • Restricted freedom of movement:
    Employers used multiple methods to restrict their fishermen’s freedom of movement while onshore. It was common for employers to hold employees’ migrant registration documents. Without these documents migrant workers are at risk of arrest whenever they are onshore, making it difficult for them to leave their job and seek new employment. 78.9% of study respondents were registered with the Thai government, but only 11.2% had access to their registration documents.

What’s being done

Studies found that there is political will from the upper levels of the Thai government to combat forced labour in the fishing and seafood industries and that it has been made a top priority. Many believe this comes from a desire to protect the seafood export industry and to maintain a good image internationally.

However, many also worry that without sustained international pressure things won’t change.  Political will was considered to be less strong in the mid and local-level government, and the necessary resources to combat trafficking and forced labour hadn’t yet been allocated.

Child trafficking and forced labour in Ghana

IJM has worked in Ghana since 2014, supporting local authorities to rescue children, arrest and prosecute traffickers, and provide care to survivors.

Their research in Lake Volta found that more than half of children working in the fishing industry were trafficked into forced labour, with the majority being ten or younger. Only 0.4% of the children in boats were female, as girls are generally given roles in processing, preserving and selling fish, doing household chores, and cooking for their hosts and/or other children. All children worked long hours with little sleep, and almost all were injured at some point

Children were injured by fish, either in the water or when cleaning, that prick or shock them and leave them with swollen feet and hands. Many children had cuts, bruises and sores from objects in the water like broken glass bottles, with many open wounds not being treated immediately and becoming infection risks. Some children also drowned due to hitting objects in the water, while others sustained injuries falling in or off boats that resulted in disability. Malaria, hepatitis and typhoid fever were common health issues, and children suffered from extreme trauma and violence, including beatings.

Additionally, estimates of sexual violence against girls varied from 20% – 100%. While abuse is hidden and difficult to identify, multiple key informants noted unusually high rates of teenage pregnancies as evidence of potential sexual abuse. Children were also frequently prevented from attending school. Many children want to leave their situation due to violence or wanting to go to school but are unable to leave due to lack of money for transportation, not knowing how to get home, especially if they were taken when very young, traffickers physically stopping and punishing them for leaving, and fear.

Poverty makes parents and guardians vulnerable to trafficking their children to work in Lake Volta’s fishing industry and is the primary factor behind children being trafficked. Children are a source of cheap labour and easy to exploit, making them appealing to traffickers. At the same time, some fishermen struggle to provide for their own families and can’t afford to hire adults to help them, leading them to use child slave labour, so poverty can be a problem on both sides.

“The adults want a fair share of the money made per catch, but the child has no clue. That is why most of them like to use children.”

Some things can be done, however:

when communities were asked how they believed trafficking into forced labour could be stopped, one of the most frequently cited solution was law enforcement. In particular, young adult groups emphasised that the practice of child trafficking will not end without perpetrators being arrested and held accountable under Ghanaian law.


Bonded labour in Tamil

IJM has been working on bonded labour cases in India since the early 2000s. Currently, most bonded labour involves labourers pledging themselves to work to repay a debt. In most cases, their debts aren’t settled until the end of a specified employment season, until the owner decides they have paid the debt in full, or not at all. During their ’employment’ a broker often manipulates their account; adding costs for transportation to the worksite, food and housing, meaning labourers never fully repay their debts and become trapped.

While bonded labour is illegal in India, an IJM study estimated that 463,000 (29.9%) of manual labourers working in the 11 industries surveyed in this study in Tamil Nadu were bonded. All industries included in this study employed at least some bonded labour, with the lowest labour force prevalence of bondage being 7.7%. Of all manual labourers aged 30 and under, 46.3% were bonded. Migrant labourers were bonded at more than three times the rate of those working in their home districts. Overall the prevalence of bonded labour was much higher among males (36.5%) than among females (24.8%)

The highest bondage rates were found in brick kilns (63.7%), textiles (61.9%) and rock quarries
(59.2%). The textile industry alone has an estimated 237,900 bonded labourers currently working
in Tamil Nadu.

In total 36.9% of all labourers were paid less than minimum wage, but 60.8% of bonded labourers
were paid below the minimum wage. The top three industries for this were match and fireworks (69.1%), brick kilns (54.3%) and rice mills (53.9%).

At 132 worksites physical, psychological and verbal violence was noted, as well as labourers being forced to work. This occurred predominantly in the textile industry, but also included brick kilns, farming units, tree-cutting units, plantations, match making and firework units, rock quarries, fish farms, and rice mills.

The number of worksites with observable forced or exploitative child labour was low, but the total number of labourers in these worksites reached the thousands and both adults and children experienced dire conditions. At some worksites, however, almost all workers were children. In the study, children working under exploitative conditions were documented as receiving low or no wages.

Labour trafficking in Cambodia

IJM has worked in Cambodia for the past 14 years to investigate and prosecute cases of child sex trafficking. In early 2016 IJM ended its anti-sex trafficking programme because the organisation had witnessed significant reductions in sex trafficking, and the Cambodian government was reliably and professionally responding to remaining cases of child sexual exploitation. The Cambodia office then transitioned to cases of cross-border and domestic labour trafficking.

Labour trafficking in Southeast Asia remains a prevalent and far-reaching problem. Cambodia is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to labour trafficking, with recent studies estimating that as many as 256,800 Cambodians live in conditions of modern slavery, many of them within the fishing and seafood industries, manufacturing sector, and in forced marriages.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodian labourers migrate domestically and internationally each
year to pursue high-risk jobs in poorly regulated markets, which increases their vulnerability to
forced labour. A 2013 study reported at least 20% of the 10,000 deportees who return to Cambodia from Thailand each month are trafficking victims (24,000 returning victims per year).

So what can we do?

While this information can seem overwhelming, it’s important to understand the problem in order to work to fix it. Major corporations rightly receive harsh criticism when trafficked labour is exposed in their supply chains, as has been the case with Tesco, Apple, Nestle, Walmart and many more. Textiles, chocolate, electronics, fish, metals, bricks, flowers and dozens of other industries are rife with trafficked, forced, exploited and child labour, to the point where it feels like the next bad thing is just waiting to be revealed.

It is definitely the responsibility of retailers to clean up their supply chains, but this can be difficult both because they aren’t experts themselves, and because slavery is a corrupt and well-hidden crime. Slavery is so prevalent in so many industries that it makes it difficult to completely avoid if national governments don’t also take responsibility to tackle the problem.

While corporations can work with their supply chains, it is governments who hold the authority to enforce national laws against forced labour, child labour, slavery and trafficking, and it’s local and national police, prosecutors and judges who can investigate, arrest and prosecute perpetrators.

There are four main approaches for retailers trying reducing exploited labour in global supply chains. These include:


The most common approach is voluntary, self-regulating policies or codes of conduct. 54% of Fortune 500 companies have policies targeting human trafficking; 68% have a commitment to using internal and external supply chain monitoring.

Many businesses bring in third-party auditors to review their suppliers’ operations for evidence of child, forced or bonded labour, but self-regulation has limitations. Many audits, for example, only take place in the top tiers but don’t include subcontractors further down the supply chain.

Additionally, many audits, including third-party audits, are scheduled and announced in advance, giving time for violations to be hidden. Most audits also have short timeframes and a limited number of workers interviewed during the audit process, and few audit firms have investigative powers, meaning the capacity to verify the information they receive is limited.

Most importantly, however, is that these business codes don’t stop perpetrators. Business personnel have no enforcement mechanisms to deter criminal activity, only local and national law can do this. If we rely on corporate self-regulation alone, this weakens the political will of states and public justice systems to address the problems.

Full-chain traceability

Companies’ attempts to achieve full supply chain traceability from raw materials to final product theoretically offers complete transparency so that customers have all the information they need avoid companies that aren’t able to prove that their products are slavery-free.

The transparency movement is important because it motivates corporations to look more closely at their supply chains and encourages change, meaning it could be a stepping stone toward enforceable standards. However, this approach alone removes government responsibility for criminal behaviour, which is also vital to creating change.

Training and education

This encompasses preventative measures such as training in management skills and in identifying
and reporting signs of trafficking. Organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and International Organisation for Migration emphasise education of at-risk workers.

Unfortunately, worker education, information sharing and advocacy alone aren’t useful if the local criminal justice system isn’t investigating and prosecuting perpetrators.

Standards and incentives

This looks like establishing industry standards and then creating a market-based incentive, credentialing good actors and driving business toward them and away from tainted supply chains.

Government policy is vital

Work by the media, NGOs and corporations to properly examine supply chains, incentivise good labour practice and stigmatise industries that are filled with slavery is important. But these things alone won’t stop slavery, as it’s so common and so profitable.

It has to be the responsibility of government to protect individuals from slavery and exploitation. Not only because it’s the moral duty of a government to protect its citizens, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable, but because eradicating slavery is most definitely possible if the political will is there.

IJM has consistently seen successes in areas where they operate, as their tangible support to law enforcement and victims results in cases of slavery and labour exploitation dropping across the board. Their work identifies gaps and weaknesses in the justice systems of the areas they’re in, meaning that IJM is then able to implement system reform programmes to develop the capacity of local law enforcement to address slavery cases.

As they work to help police, prosecutors and courts alongside victim rehabilitation, they help create environments that stop slavery from happening in the first place and holds perpetrators fully accountable for their actions. While it is hard to read about the horrible nature of how slavery really looks in the modern world, we can also be hopeful by looking at the way it is defeated every day.

To support IJM’s continued work to eradicate slavery, check them out here