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Forced labor

Combatting forced labor situations, including those that involve children, is a necessary component in building sustainable economies that work for all.

Forced labor graphic

On any given day, according to the most recent estimates, nearly 25 million people are living under conditions of forced labor; 71 percent of them are women and girls.

Across the world, millions of people are working against their will, exploited for their labor, and treated as no human being should ever be. Some are recruited with promises of decent work and fair pay and then taken to job sites, often far away from their homes and families, where they are physically barricaded from leaving and threatened if they refuse to work. Others are forced to hand over their passports or other documents essential to their freedom of movement, leaving them at the mercy of their employers.


The burden of debt is often used as a weapon in these situations, forcing individuals to continue working under inhumane conditions for months and even years on end until recruitment fees or the costs of transportation fronted by employers or recruiters are paid off using these workers’ wages. Clearly, slavery is not a thing of the past.

One in four victims of modern slavery is a child.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), forced labor is “work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty,” meaning “situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers, or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.” It is very often linked to seemingly legitimate commercial channels.

Approximately 16 million victims of forced labor are in the private economy. Over half of these individuals are in situations where personal debt is used to forcibly obtain labor. Moreover, “this proportion rises above 70% for adults who were forced to work in agriculture, domestic work or manufacturing.”

Individuals may also be coerced or deceived into forced labor by employers or recruiters when their wages are withheld or when they are prevented from leaving by threats, document retention or acts of violence, including sexual violence.

Companies across various sectors are increasingly including forced labor among their salient human rights issues – the human rights at risk of the most severe negative impacts through the company’s activities and business relationships.

Combatting forced labor situations, including those that involve children, is a necessary component in building sustainable economies that work for all.

As illustrated above, and depending on the specifics of the relevant corporate initiative, private sector efforts to address forced labor may contribute to the achievement of an array of the Global Goals, including:

  • Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages[i]
  • Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all [ii]
  • Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls[iii]
  • Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all[iv]
  • Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries[v]
  • Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels[vi]

So, how are companies currently taking action to bring about a world in which both adults and children are free from forced labor? Examples illustrated by the case studies below include:

  • Individual corporations are tackling key entry points: A leading tech company is drawing a strong line in the sand when it comes to forced labor risks, requiring all of its suppliers to directly employ their workforce and support responsible recruitment practices that prevent conditions in which forced labor can thrive.

  • Manufacturers are reforming recruitment and employment systems: A garment producer in India is taking concerted action to combat conditions that support or allow for a local system of exploitation that traps young women and girls into forced and child labor.

  • Global buyers and local actors are collaborating in high-risk contexts: A network of brands and retailers sourcing from the seafood supply chain in Thailand are coordinating with local processors, producers, trade unions, NGOs and government actors to enhance transparency, foster multi-stakeholder engagement and spark systemic change across the industry.

  • Leading brands are engaging with programs that prioritize worker voice: A group of international buyers is participating in an innovative program that tackles the issue of forced labor across various sectors in Southeast Asia via empowerment of worker voices and collaborative, rather than punitive, partnerships with suppliers to improve conditions on the ground.


The case studies explore each of these innovative and evolving models in more detail. Each case study captures publicly available information on the initiative, alongside experiences and opinions from various actors involved.

The case study summaries do not claim to give a definitive account of a specific initiative or of all perspectives on that case study; instead, they are intended to serve as illustrative examples of how action toward corporate respect for human rights can make a critical contribution to the achievement of various goals and targets under the SDGs.

Case studies on forced labor

HP’s Foreign Migrant Worker Standard

Leading the industry with action on root causes

Responsible Labor Initiative

New cross-industry initiatives to watch

Penguin Apparel’s efforts to combat Sumangali schemes

Tackling local forced labor risks from the producer perspective

Seafood Task Force

Combining global and local forces in a high-risk context

Issara Institute’s Strategic Partners Program

Empowering worker voice and going beyond audits to strengthen supply chains

Key takeaways on forced labor

Individual company action

1. Strategic engagement with expert organizations can drive leading and targeted action on a severe human rights issue in a company’s supply chain.

2. Strong supplier relationships that focus on capacity building and support rather than on “policing” can result in mutually beneficial outcomes.

3. There can be forced labor risks in the recruitment and hiring of local workers as well as migrant workers.

4. Manufacturer-led efforts that engage business partners downstream are possible and can facilitate monitoring of risks deeper in the supply chain.

5. Forced labor is a severe human rights harm that may be prioritized even when the likelihood of its occurrence is decreasing, especially when the risks are to particularly vulnerable groups.

Collective action

  1. Proactive, solution-oriented responses by brands connected to human rights abuses in their supply chains can spark action and collaboration that tackles the issue, rather than avoiding it.

  2. Collective efforts across business relationships in a particular industry or across multiple industries can bring together information and resources to increase transparency throughout complex supply chains.

  3. Tracking of impacts and improvements based on quality data management systems can greatly inform efforts to reduce and remedy impacts, as well as internal and external reporting.

  4. Consistently and appropriately empowering worker voice can be a meaningful way to capture the scale and nature of impacts as experienced by the people most affected and to help companies target their responses.

  5. Interventions can multiply their impact by creatively engaging workers across various entry points to more holistically inform workers and address the myriad harms caused to victims of forced labor.

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