When we talk about intersectional environmentalism, something we need to consider is how the climate crisis exacerbates vulnerability and oppression. Those who are already marginalised due to factors such as race, class, disability or geographic location are most vulnerable to the effects of climate breakdown, and climate breakdown also makes them more vulnerable to further exploitation and oppression. One of the most prevalent examples of this is the link between the climate crisis and modern slavery/bonded labour.
Ahead of COP26, more than 50 organisations signed an open letter to Alok Sharma, calling for the conference to address climate change and modern slavery. This letter argued that the alternative was a future where already marginalised people become exploited through forced labour, child slavery and forced marriage, and human trafficking.
The letter also recommended that the link between climate-induced migration and modern slavery should be recognised and included in climate targets and adaptation plans. It highlighted the need to address climate-induced risks of modern slavery and to avert, minimise and address displacement caused by climate breakdown, as well as the urgent need for a just transition.
Here’s some context to further explain what this means.
Vulnerability, migration & the climate crisis
The impacts of climate breakdown are already increasing vulnerability to modern slavery and bonded labour. Global South countries are exposed to the most severe climate impacts, often with the least capacity to adapt and recover from damage caused by extreme weather. These conditions can lead to forced internal and cross-border migration, as people have to leave land that is no longer safe or jobs that no longer provide them with a living.
Impacts such as the loss of crops to flooding, death of livestock due to sudden freezes, and water scarcity can often be the final straw for those in precarious conditions. Simultaneously, extractive industries can often be found in these same countries. Their impact through occupying land, clearing forests, and polluting local areas adds to preexisting problems, making both daily life and farming untenable for many (one example: Shell’s impact on the Niger Delta, which harms 40,000 people).
In Bangladesh alone, the World Bank estimates that over 13 million people may be displaced by climate breakdown by 2050.
The World Bank predicts that as many as 143 million people will migrate within their own borders in just three regions of the world by 2050 unless action is taken to address climate change. 30.1 million weather-related displacements took place in 2020, including 9.8 million affecting children according to IDMC and UNICEF UK.
But migration itself doesn’t have to be inherently risky, especially if people have access to proper support and information. Under the right conditions, it can be an important method of climate adaptation that keeps people safe, highlighting the desperate need for safe routes of passage and proper support for all who migrate.
Vulnerability for those who don’t migrate
Even if people don’t migrate, the vulnerability caused by extractive corporations combined with sudden-onset disasters (extreme weather events) and slow-onset events (such as water shortages, extreme temperatures or loss of food security) destabilises whole regions and communities, leaving people open to exploitation and modern slavery.
For example, IJM recently shared the story of Suriya, a 10-year-old boy who was forced to work on a goat farm. This happened because a cyclone hit Suriya’s village; destroying his home, taking his father’s life, and taking his family’s livelihood. In the aftermath of the storm, Suriya’s family didn’t migrate but a local farmer capitalised on their vulnerability, offering Suriya’s mother a loan to pay for her husband’s funeral and repair her home. She was given no choice but to accept, and Suriya was forced to work on the farm with no end in sight. While Suriya was eventually rescued, this is a classic example of vulnerability to climate breakdown directly tying to the risk of modern slavery. If it hadn’t been for the cyclone, Suriya wouldn’t have been forced into bonded labour.
This risk is most prevalent for poor people in rural areas. Up to 90% of the world’s poorest people depend on the availability of natural resources, 75% of the poorest households rely directly on subsistence farming or fishing for survival, and Indigenous peoples are particularly dependent on natural resources. All of these communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate breakdown. Without a just transition and suitable policies to support rural, Indigenous and Global South communities, all of them are at higher risk of ending up in a position like Suriya’s family as the climate crisis worsens.
Bonded labour & destructive industries
We also find a kind of ‘vicious cycle’ occurring in these situations, as forced labour is often found in climate destructive industries. Due to the legacies of colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy, many parts of the world have developed models based on resource extraction and exportation, commodifying people and planet for profit. Extractive and agribusiness industries, in particular, are said to be responsible for half of the world’s carbon emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss; monopolising land and resources, polluting local areas, destroying ecosystems and driving displacement.
Extractive industries and agroindustry are also the main sources of demand for cheap labour, relying on supplying chains that incentivise exploitation, forced labour and inhumane conditions. Both climate breakdown and environmental destruction linked to extractivism drive vulnerability and displacement, which itself creates a supply of easily exploitable labour. The link between loss of land and slavery is well known; countries like Brazil and Bolivia have specifically cited land redistribution as a method for preventing exploitation.
Alongside policies to prevent increased vulnerability to bonded labour, the impacts and actions of harmful corporations must be tackled to protect more vulnerable people from exploitation.
Under pressure to provide an ‘investor-friendly’ environment from powerful global and national actors, and often locked in by the terms of investment treaties or trade agreements that close off policy and finance pathways, poorer states are incentivised to relax environmental regulation, marginalise unions and ignore labour and migrant rights abuses. Unchecked, this continuum of labour exploitation can result in grave human rights violations
The destabilisation caused by climate breakdown is worsened by economic models based on natural resource extraction and industrialised agriculture. These models have led to deforestation, extreme pollution, and inequitable access to land and water, all of which create more conditions for vulnerable people to end up exploited. These models need to change.
What could solutions look like?
While a transition to renewables is essential, this transition must be just. Simply swapping fossil fuels with alternatives that rely on intensive, unregulated mining (which itself can cause pollution, deforestation, displacement and exploitation) will simply repeat destructive patterns and worsen conditions for vulnerable frontline communities.
A just transition requires holistic thinking and a human rights-based approach. Growth can’t be prioritised over all else, as we’ve previously seen in the benefits the fossil fuel, mining, and industrial agriculture industries have received. These include subsidies, tax breaks, the creation of special labour regimes, and ignoring allegations of exploitation. Degrowth needs to become part of the approach.
It is also vital to focus on environmental justice, inviting a range of diverse voices to create solutions.
Over 90% of historical excess global CO2 emissions is attributable to the countries of the Global North… the world’s richest countries and companies need to take primary responsibility for addressing climate change and environmental degradation.
Many frontline communities are already practising their own responses to climate breakdown. These include traditional and agroecological food systems that provide sustainable and equitable food security, Indigenous and ancestral knowledge for the protection of biodiversity, and working with local communities and survivors to prevent further risks of modern slavery.
This demonstrates something we’ve all heard before: we already have the answers. Indigenous land rights, safe passages and support for migration, proper funding for climate adaptation and resilience, degrowth and dismantling destructive extractivist industries, meaningful inclusion and participation of frontline, Indigenous and vulnerable communities in decision making, Global North countries taking responsibility for their colonial legacies and committing to a just transition as fast as possible.
The answers are there, and the answers centre justice for all. While climate breakdown and vulnerable communities are inherently linked, the solutions to the climate crisis can also be found in these same communities. Together, we can bring an end to bonded labour while protecting and preserving human rights for all. We just need the will to do it.