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Blogs and Opinion What can you do this Earth Day to help prevent trafficking?

What can you do this Earth Day to help prevent trafficking?

We are all seeing the effects of climate change on our world. This month, I’ve heard people make comments like, “We’re seriously due some sunshine”, “It’s still icy cold” and “We’ve had hailstones here – it’s April!” 

Today – April 22nd – is Earth Day. This started out as a day of action in 1970 but has now grown to mobilize more than one billion people worldwide to protect the planet. 

We’ve previously written about some of the intersections between modern slavery and climate change. Whether it is people’s increased vulnerability to trafficking due to climate-induced displacement, or increased child forced labour in the agricultural sector as a result of heavy rainfall or drought, evidence shows that the climate crisis is leaving millions at risk of modern slavery. And the two social issues are sadly inextricably linked; modern slavery is exacerbating climate change. 

This year, EARTHDAY.ORG is centring its annual event on the theme ‘Planet vs. Plastics’. Its goal is a 60% reduction in the production of all plastics by 2040.

Plastic pollution in the river in Vazhoor, India

So, what are the links between plastic and modern slavery?

Plastic exists in almost every industry and we don’t have to look far to see it in everyday life. Be it children’s toys, food packaging or household goods such as kettles, hairdryers and cling film. More than one third of consumption is in packaging, such as containers and plastic bags. Another third is used in building products including plastic pipes or vinyl cladding. 

While it certainly has its uses, there’s no denying the harmful and damaging effects of this material on our planet. But how is it connected to modern slavery? More than 77% of companies believe slavery is likely to exist in their supply chain (‘Corporate Leadership on Modern Slavery’ survey, ETI/Hult International Business School, 2016). And industries involving plastic production, packaging, waste and recycling are no exemption. 

In 2017, two-thirds of the victims of modern slavery that Hope for Justice engaged with had spent at least some time in exploitation in waste management facilities in the UK. In some cases, waste-recycling firms have been accused, sued or found guilty of involvement in human trafficking and modern slavery as a way of sourcing cheap labour.  

Due to the nature of the waste and recycling industry, there are many entry points that traffickers can exploit. Low staff retention rates, the employment of seasonal and temporary workers, and the high demand for workers make it easier for perpetrators to infiltrate supply chains and to operate without being detected. 

Traffickers tend to target those who are vulnerable because it makes it much easier to gain and maintain control over the victim. This can be those living in poverty, those displaced, those unable to access other employment, people fleeing conflict, runaway children, homeless or otherwise. 

Victims of modern slavery are being forced to work, for little or no pay, in business operations and supply chains all over the world, and this includes those of recycling plants, waste companies and factories handling plastic goods. 

What is Hope for Justice doing to prevent modern slavery in business supply chains?

In 2018, Hope for Justice launched Slave-Free Alliance, a not-for-profit social enterprise to help businesses protect their operations and supply chains against modern slavery. 

Through expert consultancy, training, policy recommendations and more, Slave-Free Alliance is working with more than 115 members and clients. The team offers services including site assessments, gap analysis and consultancy. Members include Aviva, Experian, Dixons Carphone, Biffa, Morrisons and AstraZeneca, to name a few. 

Our team works with businesses to identify and monitor potential risks, understand if due diligence is being carried out, measure progress and work to mitigate risks. 

The intersection between modern slavery, climate change and migration

Climate disasters or the degradation of the environment, which is often as a result of harmful economic activities such as oil extraction and mining, can lead to people being displaced from their homes. 

A child carries water back home in Merti, Kenya

The World Bank estimates that climate change – including crop failures, water shortages and sea-level rise – will force more than 143 million people from their homes by 2050. Those affected will mainly be in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

This is the worst part – that those people who are most affected by climate change are the ones who have contributed least to it.

This forced migration increases people’s vulnerability to exploitation. Refugees may be taken advantage of by traffickers who, through force, fraud or coercion, exploit them, sometimes within the very industries that caused their displacement. Sadly, people on the move are more vulnerable to forced labour because their livelihoods are either at risk or have been lost. They may be more easily tricked into accepting hazardous, exploitative conditions to earn a wage. 

Anticipatory action to move people to safety before disasters strike can help to reduce the risks of human trafficking. In Uganda, for instance, the government implemented a 10-year voluntary resettlement programme to relocate inhabitants to safer areas in Bulambuli district after the eastern part of the country began experiencing more landslide disasters. The project provided housing, infrastructure, services, income generating activities and land, all of which will have prevented people from falling into exploitative labour conditions. 

Sadly, there are many more intersections between climate change and modern slavery beyond migration, which mean we must look at these social causes together rather than as isolated issues.

Forced labour is powering fast fashion

As part of this global Earth Day, calls are being made to raise awareness of the health risks of plastic, to phase out all single use plastics, for a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, and an end to fast fashion. 

Last year, we took a deep-dive into some of the impacts of the fashion industry on modern slavery. We highlighted that more than 20% of the world’s cotton comes from just one notorious region, with well-documented human rights abuses. Forced labour is rife in global garment supply chains. The 2023 Global Slavery Index report highlighted that G20 countries are importing $147.9 billion worth of garments and $12.7 billion worth of textiles every year that are at risk of being produced by forced labour.

A clothes factory in Indonesia (stock image)

Hope for Justice has made a number of recommendations for fashion brands to further their anti-slavery agendas and ensure protection for those most vulnerable in their operations and supply chain. 

There is also much evidence to show that climate change is impacting working practices in other fields and industries. 

A report by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, Royal Holloway University of London and the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner explains links between climate change and abuse in certain industries, for example in the Thai fishing industry.  

It highlights a specific link between over-fishing, the environmental decline of fish stocks, and the exploitative labour practices on fishing boats. 

Further still, the research looks at forest areas, particularly the destructive nature of the logging industry, leading to debt-bonded labour and deforestation. Other studies have highlighted the dependency in Brazil and Indonesia on expensive charcoal, cattle and palm oil industries upon an exploited workforce. This shows that debt-bonded labour is entangled with deforestation and large-scale clearing of the Amazon, Sumatran and Bornean forests.

New research featured in the report from Royal Holloway explores the lives of debt-bonded workers on brick kilns, and the trajectory that led them there from rural villages across Cambodia.

How can I play a part in preventing modern slavery and protecting the planet?

Consumers provide the demand and profit incentive for traffickers. Human trafficking victims make an alarmingly high number of consumer goods and food products, imported to the United States and produced domestically. More often than we realize, elements of forced labour may be present within the supply chain of products we buy or the services we pay for. These consumers can include companies that subcontract certain types of services, end-consumers who buy cheap goods produced by trafficking victims, or individuals who use the services of trafficking victims (Polaris, 2021).

We all have buying power

We can use our knowledge about modern slavery and human trafficking to inform our decisions. We all have buying power – so where we choose to, or choose not to, use our money has influence. 

When we purchase vegetables that have plastic packaging around them instead of the loose vegetables next to them, we’re contributing to the plastic problem.

Similarly, when we choose to purchase cheap chocolate that contains palm oil, we’re likely fuelling the problem of forced labour on cocoa farms.

Instead, why not buy loose fruit and vegetables, buy items that are wrapped in other more renewable materials such as paper, or look for the Fairtrade logo?

Instead of buying new clothing, can you purchase second-hand? Could you use an app such as Vinted, try looking in charity shops, or even organise a clothes swap with your friends? Better still, you could raise some money for Hope for Justice along the way by donating the difference of what you might have otherwise paid for the full-price item in a shop.

We all have a voice

Make your voice heard; send an email to the companies that make your favourite brands. Ask them what action they have taken to end modern slavery. Most companies have an email address for general enquiries or a ‘Contact Us’ form on their website.

It is our responsibility as consumers to demand of businesses and supermarkets that the products being sold to us have been produced ethically throughout the supply chain.

Or why not talk about the issue of modern slavery on social media? Use your platform to raise awareness.

Just as a seed starts off small – under the right conditions, with food and water and care, it grows into a tree and bears fruit. Similarly, our efforts may seem small, but when combined with the positive actions of other people, we can be a force for good.

young girl