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Sedex introduction to forced labour

What is forced labour?

Forced labour is one of the worst forms of exploitation. Forced labour is the most prevalent form of modern slavery, which also includes other human rights abuses such as human trafficking and forced marriage. Forced labour can occur anywhere in the world and in any part of a supply chain, making it a critical issue for companies looking to manage risk, safeguard their business, and protect workers.

We have included resources for further reading too so you can explore the topic further. These are marked throughout the page and linked at the bottom.

Forced labour definition

The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines forced labour as:

“All work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty for which said person has not offered himself/herself voluntarily.” [i]

Simply put, forced labour is when a worker cannot quit a job or leave an employer when they wish to, with reasonable notice or without facing negative consequences.

The “negative consequence” may be the non-payment of wages, loss of rights, threats, or even physical violence. Workers may be coerced into taking a job against their will or they may have paid excessive recruitment fees and fallen into a debt that they can only repay by staying with the employer (a situation known as debt bondage).

Forced labour statistics

The ILO estimates that 24.9 million people worldwide are victims of forced labour. The majority of these victims are exploited during employment [ii].

Of this number, 16 million people are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction, or agriculture; 4.8 million persons in forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million persons in forced labour imposed by state authorities.

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labour, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors.

Why forced labour is an important issue for business

Sedex risk assessment data indicates that forced labour occurs in every region in the world and in every business sector – no industry is immune from the risk that forced labour exists within it. It is therefore essential that every organisation is aware of this risk within their own business and their supply chain.

Ensuring legal compliance

Forced labour in a business or a supply chain is outlawed in many countries, including Australia, the UK, and the USA.

Protecting business reputation

Preventing forced labour in operations and the supply chain protects a business from reputational damage with investors, consumers, and others.

Protecting business operations

Managing forced labour risks help protect a company from penalties such as fines, restrictions on operating or trading, and even prison sentences.

Protecting workers

Forced labour is against international labour and human rights. Businesses should uphold these rights and provide decent work with safer, humane conditions for workers.

Forced labour can be a very difficult issue to tackle. Companies need effective tools, policies, processes, and activities to manage forced labour risks and protect workers.

Understanding forced labour risks in your business and supply chain

The risk of forced labour is greater in certain countries and industries, and some groups of workers are more vulnerable than others. Businesses need to know where their supply chains operate and the types of workers they employ to understand where their risks are greatest.

For example, women and girls account for 58% of the 24.9 million victims of forced labour. Migrant workers and indigenous people are also considered more vulnerable. Some industries are also recognised as more vulnerable to forced labour, including apparel manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and service or domestic work [iii].

Forced labour indicators

Forced labour is notoriously difficult to identify and evidence given it is a criminal activity. It is against international human rights and many national laws. Instances of forced labour, and sometimes particular practices associated with higher risks of it, are driven underground. Serious abuses may occur several tiers down the supply chain.

Guidance and recommendations therefore often provide “indicators” of forced labour which acts as red flags when trying to detect instances:

  • Abuse of vulnerability
  • Retention of identity documents
  • Deception
  • Withholding of wages
  • Restriction of movement
  • Debt bondage
  • Isolation
  • Abusive working and living conditions
  • Physical and sexual violence
  • Excessive overtime
  • Intimidation and threats

(Source: International Labour Organization [iv])

These indicators also intersect – they exacerbate each other, so the more indicators, the greater the risk of forced labour. Finding multiple indicators should prompt a business to investigate further.

The Sedex Forced Labour Indicators tool

The Sedex Forced Labour Indicators tool, part of our risk assessment tool, uses data  from a member’s supply chains to highlight where operational indicators of forced labour have been identified.

The tool also provides additional information to help businesses understand the level of risk, such as the risk of forced labour within a site’s country and sector, or the presence of more vulnerable groups of workers. It helps companies prioritise where to investigate further and take action where the risks of forced labour are highest.

Resources and further reading



[iii] See and