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Understanding the indicators of forced labour

Forced labour is a form of modern slavery, and one of the worst forms of human exploitation in supply chains. It can also be incredibly difficult to identify and find evidence for. Learn about the indicators of forced labour and why organisations use them to understand forced labour risks.

With an estimated 16 million people in forced labour employed in the private sector[i], forced labour is a critical concern for many companies. It may be a significant risk in parts of an organisation’s own operations or their supply chain.

Forced labour and modern slavery are criminal activities, and notoriously difficult to detect. Long and complex global supply chains make it harder for businesses to have visibility of the people, places and operations that make up their supply networks.

Where forced labour does occur, work sites may have sophisticated ways of hiding this exploitation from authorities. This can leave companies unsure about how to identify or address the issue.

When identifying instances of forced labour, it is important for a company or person to understand what signs to look for. This also helps to build evidence to support any claims about forced labour occurring.

Using “indicators” to understand forced labour risks

To help organisations identify risks or actual instances of forced labour, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has identified indicators of forced labour[ii] to help recognise a person who is trapped in forced labour or may require urgent assistance.

The presence of one or several of these indicators can increase the risk of forced labour for workers.

However, just because an indicator is present, or a worker experiences poor conditions, this does not necessarily mean forced labour definitely exists at a site.

The indicators work as “red flags” – alert signs that there is an increased risk requiring further investigation and action.

The indicators of forced labour

Click on each indicator to learn more about it.

The indicators of forced labour

Explore each of these in more detail, with additional examples and how to identify these in an audit, in our guidance on operational practice and indicators of forced labour.

Sedex’s key recommendations for businesses

  • Identify forced labour risks in your operations and supply chain. Conduct a risk assessment of your work sites and suppliers. This will help you understand your own supply chain, and where higher-risk countries, sectors and workers are present in it.
  • Assess these risks by looking at the indicators of forced labour across your own worksites and those in your supply chain. Prioritise assessment activity, such as conducting audits or deep-dive investigations, by the level of forced labour risk.
  • Take action to protect victims. If you suspect or identify forced labour, protecting and supporting potential victims is the first critical step for addressing this. Alongside this, you should also gather evidence and document findings to support a further investigation.
  • Embed good practices and check that both your own work sites and suppliers’ sites have robust labour management systems – the policies and processes to help a business ensure good conditions for workers.
  • Conduct training to build your knowledge, raise awareness and train teams – including suppliers – about forced labour. Include training about the countries, sectors, commodity type, business model and vulnerable worker types where forced labour is a greater risk.
  • Work with suppliers to resolve issues. Each of these indicators pose a concern for workers, even if you do not suspect or identify forced labour. Engage with suppliers to understand the causes of these situations, and work together to develop mutually beneficial solutions.


[i] ILO statistics on forced labour

[ii] ILO Indicators of Forced Labour (2012)