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There are 25 million workplace slaves worldwide — there's no end in sight

Stacey Yuen
Tens of millions are trapped in forced labor globally and the situation is unlikely to turn around soon, experts say.

International agencies know there are tens of millions trapped in forced labor, and they know many supply chains profit, but that's not enough to even begin to remedy the problem of global slavery.

Still, some are hoping that a new publication could galvanize international effort to tackle modern slavery head-on. The report, jointly published last month by United Nations labor agency the International Labor Organization and human rights group the Walk Free Foundation, found that 25 million are trapped in workplace slavery around the world.

By quantifying slavery, the survey completes an essential first step that could compel governments to act, according to Andrew Forrest, chairman of Australia's Fortescue metals and founder of the Walk Free Foundation.

"We can now measure slavery ... If you can measure it, remember it's a human construct, we can now dismantle it," Forrest told CNBC.

"If you have to acknowledge it exists and you don't do anything about it, then you become like a willful collaborator," he said.

In the wake of the report, Forrest said, governments and business leaders are "now waking up to the fact that measurement now exists for modern slavery."

While both the ILO and the Walk Free Foundation had separately published modern slavery estimates previously, the September report represents the first partnership by the two big players in the field.


Little cheer ahead still

Nonetheless, optimism might not be completely warranted, as knowing about the problem does not mean it can be easily eradicated, experts said.

Tackling slavery at its source poses a far greater challenge than uncovering it in supply chains, according to Jean Devlin, partner at consultancy Control Risks.

"The difficulty comes when you want to combat the issue," said Hannah Broscombe, analyst at consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft. "Supply chains are very fragmented and multi-tiered in terms of their structure, which gives rise to modern slavery."

According to Broscombe, many suppliers subcontract workers from recruitment agents — who are sometimes actually slave brokers — in the face of labor shortages.

And that's where much of the risk lies: Many middlemen operate illegally, charging exorbitant fees to workers and keeping them trapped in dismal conditions. Workers are also often too afraid to raise their worries and concerns, according to Broscombe.

That doesn't mean the global slavery index will have no real impact on the problem, however. The survey breaks down the slavery risks according to countries and industries, which could help better focus mitigation efforts, Broscombe said.


Slavery threatens businesses

Modern slavery is a violation of the basic tenets of human rights, but that's not necessarily compelling enough a point to make every business eradicate the practice from its supply chains. Instead, experts say, companies may be more inclined to change if they learn just how much slavery poses risks to their bottom lines .

That is, businesses who engage or are complicit in such practices face a significant reputation risk, especially if the media gets wind of the matter, Broscombe said. Firms that are found out, she added, are usually forced to suspend operations until the situation is resolved, which could cause huge production delays.

And while Forrest said uncovering slavery was, in his experience, a "really simple" matter of telling suppliers to own up or risk their partnership with his firm, analysts told CNBC that most executives might not find it so easy to address the issue.

Self-assessment is a good first step, but "only really the tip of the iceberg" in terms of what businesses need to do, Broscombe said.

"Even if suppliers know they have workers in modern slavery conditions, the likelihood that they'll reveal it is pretty slim" on fears that would cost them their relationship with the company, she added.

Firms should look to establish trust with their suppliers if they want to effectively locate and combat modern slavery practices, said Devlin.

"We have found that businesses that foster transparency and communication with their supply chains can develop a collaborative and solution-focused approach," she said.

That could mean that self-assessment methods might be more relevant for smaller firms, where relationships of trust can be built more easily with suppliers, Broscombe said.

The United Kingdom introduced its Modern Slavery Act in 2015 — the country's first piece of legislature focused on tackling slavery and protecting victims. Under the act, companies with a global annual turnover of at least £36 million ($47.8 million) must report the steps they are taking to ensure that their supply chains are free from slavery and trafficking.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of companies prosecuted under the act increased over four-fold — from 12 to 51.