Walk Free Foundation has examined the issue of modern slavery not from the perspective of where the crime is perpetrated, but rather from where the products of the crime are sold and consumed, with a specific focus on G20 countries. The resulting analysis presents a stark contrast in terms of both risk and responsibility. As the research in this Index confirms, citizens in G20 countries enjoy relatively low levels of vulnerability to this crime within their borders and many aspects of their government responses to preventing this crime are comparatively strong. Nonetheless, businesses and governments in G20 countries are importing products that are at risk of modern slavery, with hardly any effort being applied by governments to regulate the labour conditions involved in their production.
It is important to note that the quality and level of available information about both the nature of modern slavery and scale of the problem in these sectors varies widely. In some cases, it is heavily affected by the ability of researchers to validate information. For example, the information on modern slavery in cocoa production is based on random sample surveys undertaken in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire in 2017, so the information is recent. This reflects the fact that the governments of these countries enable and facilitate research. In contrast, the information on the situation in the North Korean coal mines can be obtained only from defectors from that country, which remains entirely shut off from independent research scrutiny. Equally, some of the research points to widescale problems (such as the research on the Thai fishing industry), whereas in other cases it is less clear if problems are widescale or isolated, as there is less information available. For example, information on forced labour in Chinese electronics manufacturing is based mostly on isolated reports of labour abuses in specific companies, as academic and other independent research on forced labour in China is very scarce.
List of products at risk of forced labour by source countries
Cotton: Benin, Burkina Faso, China, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
Bricks: Afghanistan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Korea, Democratic People's Republic of (North Korea), Pakistan
Garments (Apparel and clothing accessories): Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam
Cattle: Bolivia, Brazil, Niger, Paraguay, South Sudan
Sugarcane: Bolivia, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Myanmar, Pakistan
Gold: Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Korea, Democratic People's Republic of (North Korea), Peru
Carpets: India, Nepal, Pakistan
Coal: China, Korea, Democratic People's Republic of (North Korea), Pakistan
Fish: China, Ghana, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Korea, Republic of (South Korea), Taiwan, Thailand
Rice: India, Mali, Myanmar
Timber: Brazil, Korea, Democratic People's Republic of (North Korea), Peru
Brazil nuts / chestnuts: Bolivia, Peru
Cocoa: Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana
Diamonds: Angola, Sierra Leone
Electronics (Laptops, computers and mobile phones): China, Malaysia
Trade data were obtained for 18 of the total number of the G20 member countries. South Africa was excluded as it does not report trade data individually but only through the Southern African Customs Union, which comprises five countries (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, and Swaziland). The European Union was excluded as much of its trade data were already captured in the data of Germany, Italy, France, and the UK. The final list of countries includes:
- Saudi Arabia
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
- United States
Walk Free Foundation finds that G20 countries are importing risk of modern slavery on a massive scale. Collectively, G20 countries are importing US$354 billion worth of at-risk products annually. This ranges from a minimum of US$739 million for Argentina, to a maximum of US$144 billion for the United States. While the strength of the supporting evidence of modern slavery in various products certainly varies, for most products the evidence is clear and compelling. In these cases, it is almost certain that governments and businesses are effectively importing and trading the proceeds of crime. The most clear-cut example of this is the import of coal by China from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).
China imports nearly a billion US dollars’ worth of coal from North Korea, amounting to around 98 percent of North Korea’s total exports of coal. The process of digging coal is considered a “3D” or dirty, dangerous, and degrading job in North Korea, and the status of being a coal miner is inherited rather than a choice. In recent interviews conducted with a sample of North Korean defectors, one interviewee noted that "in North Korea, if your parents work in the coal mines, so will you.” He reported he was not paid for this work and he was not free to leave or quit. He had also never seen or even heard about an employment contract for the work he was doing at the coal mine. This defector also noted that “if you’re found unemployed you’ll be punished at the labour training camp.”
The evidence of widescale abuses in the fishing industry is also mounting. Our analysis of risk in global fisheries suggests that of the top 20 fishing countries (by volume of catch) fish imported from China, Japan, Russia, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand are at risk of modern slavery.15 Our literature review found firm evidence of reported cases of labour abuse or trafficking in the last five years for all these countries except Spain, and for Indonesia as well. Inland fisheries in Ghana, primarily in the Lake Volta region, were found to have a high prevalence of children that were trafficked into forced labour.16 Import data confirm wider-scale imports of fish from the at-risk source countries of China, Ghana, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand into a range of G20 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Russia, the UK, and the US.
Cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana is another product that may be tainted by modern slavery. Our own random sample surveys conducted in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in 2017 identified cases of modern slavery in the cocoa sector in both countries. Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are the world’s two largest cocoa producers and their cocoa is widely traded. Cocoa was identified to be within the top five products by US$ value for 12 of the 18 G20 countries represented in this chapter. The government of Brazil has recently been ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to pay US$5 million to 128 former farm workers who were enslaved on a Brazilian cattle farm between 1988 and 2000. This is only one prominent case among many others in recent years that support the widescale existence of modern slavery in the cattle industry in Brazil. Cattle from Brazil is one of the top five imports of at-risk products in Italy and Russia.
Research into the cotton industry has provided evidence that forced labour is a common phenomenon in some Central Asian countries. In Kazakhstan, migrant workers have been found to be affected by modern slavery during the cotton harvest, whereas in Turkmenistan adults from the public and private sectors are forced to pick cotton during the annual harvest and farmers are forced to fulfil state-established cotton production quotas. In Tajikistan, forced labour of adults and children has allegedly decreased over the last few years but may still be an issue. For Uzbekistan, there is more conflicting evidence, with some reports strongly linking the Uzbek cotton industry to forced labour while other evidence provided by the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests that cotton pickers are mostly recruited voluntarily. Turkey is the one G20 country that imports significant amounts of cotton from those countries. Cotton imports by Turkey total more than US$200 million from Turkmenistan, more than US$30 million from Tajikistan, and nearly US$11 million from Uzbekistan. Another widely imported product across all G20 states is timber from Brazil.
Investigations by Repórter Brasil, one of the largest Brazilian NGOs operating in the modern slavery space, has revealed that workers are widely exploited across the Brazilian timber industry. The investigations also link two US-based companies to timber bought from Brazilian traders that sourced their products from Brazilian sawmills that allegedly used modern slavery. Large quantities of Brazilian timber are imported by Argentina, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and the US. The garment and textile industry in India, particularly in Southern India states such as Tamil Nadu, is also grappling with extensive labour exploitation. Garments are one of the most widely traded and most “valuable” product categories identified on our list and are represented in the top five products of every one of the G20 countries. The three countries with the highest-value garment imports from India are the US (US$3.9 billion), UK (US$1.9 billion) and Germany (US$1.4 billion). Electronic goods from Malaysia are also implicated in modern slavery. Research in 2012 and 2014 into the electronics sector in Malaysia by the US-based NGO Verité revealed widespread forced labour in the industry. All G20 countries imported electronic goods (laptops, computers, and mobile phones) from Malaysia on an enormous scale, led by China (US$1.6 billion) and the US (US$1.5 billion). By unravelling the trade flows and focusing on products at risk of modern slavery that are imported by the top economies, it becomes clear that even the wealthiest countries have a clear and immediate responsibility for responding to modern slavery both domestically and beyond their borders. Developed economies are exposed to the risk of modern slavery not only when this crime is perpetrated within their national borders but also when that risk is effectively transferred to them via the products they import. Policymakers, businesses, and consumers must become aware of this risk and take responsibility for it.
IMAGE CREDIT: Anti-Slavery / Nile Sprague