Sedex introduction to forced labour

What is forced labour? Our short introduction will help you understand this form of exploitation. 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.


What is forced labour?

Forced labour is a severe human rights abuse and a form of labour exploitation. 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 voluntarily.[i]

Simply put, it 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 is the most prevalent form of modern slavery, which also includes other human rights abuses such as human trafficking and forced marriage.


Why forced labour is an important issue for any business

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

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.


Why forced labour is a critical issue for businesses:


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 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.


Understand forced labour risk with the Sedex Forced Labour Indicators tool

The Sedex Forced Labour Indicators tool, part of our risk assessment tool, uses data from our members’ supply chains to highlight where operational indicators of forced labour have been identified in audits shared on our platform.


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.


Learn more about our Forced Labour Indicators tool.





[iii] See and


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