Preventing Human Trafficking in Global Supply Chains

Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

Efforts to combat human trafficking around the world have advanced steadily over the past 15 years, since the adoption of the Palermo Protocol and the passage of the TVPA in 2000. Scores of countries have expanded implementation of the “3P” paradigm enshrined in these instruments, as governments investigate and prosecute trafficking cases, provide protection and services to victims, and put improved measures in place to prevent the crime from happening in the first place. Progress over this period of time has been nothing short of profound.

Yet, while the fight against human trafficking intensifies, millions of people continue to toil in compelled service, exploited for the enrichment of others in virtually every country in the world.

As the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated in 2014, forced labor in the private economy reaps some $150 billion in illicit profits each year; most instances of what the Trafficking in Persons Report refers to as human trafficking are covered by ILO’s definition of forced labor. These billions flood the formal marketplace, corrupt the global economy, and taint purchases made by unwitting consumers. Long and complex supply chains that cross multiple borders and rely on an array of subcontractors impede traceability and make it challenging to verify that the goods and services bought and sold every day are untouched by modern-day slaves.

This means consumers of goods and services may be connected to human trafficking more closely than they imagine—connected, however indirectly, to the man in the Amazon compelled to mine for gold and to the woman forced into prostitution in that same mining camp; linked to the construction worker in the Gulf who is unable to leave an exploitative situation and to the woman in Indonesia who accepts a job as a caregiver and is instead made to work in a brothel; tied to the child in West African cocoa fields who is compelled to work instead of going to school; and to the Native American teenager who runs away from home and ends up a victim of sex trafficking near the oil fields in North America.

Governments, the private sector, and individuals can all make a difference when it comes to addressing human trafficking in supply chains. Each has the unique ability to leverage economic power to influence existing markets, and create new ones, where workers can enjoy decent work and human dignity, and are free from coercion and the exploitation associated with human trafficking.

The Risk of Human Trafficking in Supply Chains

Human trafficking has no boundaries and respects no laws. It exists in formal and informal labor markets of both lawful and illicit industries, affecting skilled and unskilled workers from a spectrum of educational backgrounds. Victims include adults and children, foreign nationals and citizens, those who travel far—whether through legal or illegal channels—only to be subjected to exploitation, and those who have been exploited without ever leaving their hometowns.

The fluid nature of the crime means traffickers can target vulnerable workers anywhere to fill labor shortages everywhere along a supply chain. In the electronics sector, for example, human trafficking may exist in the extractive stages (mining for raw material), in the component manufacturing stage (where separate pieces are produced or combined), and in the production stage (where a good is assembled and packaged in a factory).

Risks are present in the service sector, as well as in the production of goods. The sheets in a hotel may be made with cotton harvested by forced labor, the housekeeper cleaning the room may be exploited in labor trafficking, and the room itself may be used as a temporary brothel by sex traffickers. The international community must both understand the supply chains of the products used to provide a service (hotel sheets, airplane parts, medical equipment) and also examine the risks to those workers who provide them (house cleaners, caregivers, dishwashers).

Although human trafficking is found in many trades, the risk is more pronounced in industries that rely upon low-skilled or unskilled labor. This includes jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and difficult—those that are typically low-paying and undervalued by society and are often filled by socially marginalized groups including migrants, people with disabilities, or minorities.

Risks may also be higher in industries of a seasonal nature or where the turn-around time for production is extremely short. In these industries, the demand for labor increases drastically at the time of harvest or when a new product—be it a smartphone or a roadway—must be manufactured within a strict timeframe. For example, East and South Asian migrant workers in the garment sector are vulnerable to forced labor and labor exploitation, including long working hours and forced overtime, especially during periods of high consumer demand.

The urgency to hire employees can also result in a dependence on labor recruiters and their agents, which in turn creates layers of separation between the employer and the worker. This disconnect means that employers can be unaware of bad practices related to hiring within their operations, leaving workers exposed to exploitation.

Finally, in industries where fierce competition leads to constant downward pressure on prices, some employers respond by taking cost-cutting measures to survive commercially, from reducing wages or ignoring safety protocols, to holding workers in compelled service through debt bondage or the retention of identity documents.

Labor Recruitment in Global Markets

Practices that lead to human trafficking often occur in the recruitment process before employment begins, whether through misrepresentation of contract terms, the imposition of recruitment fees, the confiscation of identity documents, or a combination of these. The involvement of intermediaries (for example, labor brokers, middlemen, employment agencies, or recruiters) creates additional layers in the supply chain and positions these individuals to either assist or exploit.

Labor brokers function as a bridge between worker and employer and can provide helpful guidance and assistance in matching workers with jobs and arranging visas and documentation, medical checkups, pre-departure orientation, training, and travel. In many cases, labor brokers are both legitimate and important to connect readily available laborers to employers in need of a workforce. A worker’s dependence on intermediaries, however, can also increase their risk of being subjected to trafficking. Recruiters sometimes promise individuals a high-paying job, good benefits, and reasonable working conditions to induce them into taking employment. Thereafter, when the nature or location of the job is not as promised, workers may find themselves in situations they cannot leave, either because they are held against their will or because they are indebted to their recruiters.

It is possible to identify areas of increased vulnerability in supply chains, including fraudulent practices in the recruitment process. Indicators of such recruitment typically include deception about job terms, living conditions, location, legal status, and wages, or more forceful methods such as document confiscation, debt bondage, isolation, or violence. Fraudulent recruitment practices can lead to exploitation at the place of employment, as an unsuspecting worker may endure excessive hours, poor living conditions, and wage theft. When workers are put or held in such situations through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, it constitutes human trafficking.


Debt manipulation is one of the main methods by which workers can be exploited. Workers often borrow large sums of money to cover the costs of recruitment or “job placement” fees that can run anywhere from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. Workers may borrow money from family and friends, or mortgage their homes or ancestral lands believing they can easily repay their debts upon employment. These costs, which may also be combined with excessive or arbitrary interest rates, mean workers spend a period of time—sometimes years—working for very little or no wages to repay what they owe. For example, one report tells of a Nepalese man who took a loan at a 36 percent interest rate and leveraged his family land to pay a recruitment agent $1,500 for a job abroad. After 14 months of a three-year contract, the man still was not able to save any money because he was being paid far less than what had been promised to him. He reported that he would have liked to return to Nepal, but would have had to pay a large fine to break his contract and purchase his own return flight. He then would have had no means of repaying the loan.

At other times, employers withhold pay until the work is complete, meaning workers must forfeit the entirety of their wages if they leave prior to the end of the contract. Workers may endure abusive conditions for fear of losing their job and wages and defaulting on their debts. In many cases, unpaid debts result in threats to family members or loss of family property, adding further pressure for workers to stay in servitude.

Some employers require their employees to buy food and supplies from “company stores” where high prices, coupled with low wages, continue to drive workers further into debt. In Mexico, laborers sometimes live and work on farms enclosed by fences with barbed wire, where they must buy necessities, including food, from the company store at inflated prices. They are only paid at the end of the months-long season, and many workers report that at the end of the harvest they return home owing money.

Contract Fraud or Switching

When a labor recruiter changes the terms and conditions of employment after a worker has invested in the recruitment process—or transfers the worker to another labor recruiter who feels neither legally nor ethically bound to the original contract—an individual’s vulnerability to forced labor increases dramatically. Contract fraud occurs when a worker enters into an agreement with a labor broker, either orally or in writing, and finds upon arrival that the conditions of employment have materially changed.

Not all workers sign contracts, and many of those who do are either illiterate or sign them in a language they are unable to read. Even when workers can read the contract and willingly sign it, they may be forced to sign a different and less protective contract once they arrive on location—the penalty for not doing so being the loss of the job and being stranded without the means to get home. When contract switching occurs, workers may find that the job they end up with differs substantially from the job offered. It may include longer hours, offer lower wages, and even be in a different industry or country. In some cases, the proposed job never existed at all.

Document Confiscation and Abuse of the Legal Process

Although human trafficking does not always involve migration, traffickers exploit the vulnerability of migrants who take risks to find work. In fact, migrants can be quite susceptible to human trafficking. Individuals leave their homes in search of work for a variety of reasons—fleeing poverty and unemployment, criminal violence, armed conflict, or natural disasters—and travel to other regions or countries where language barriers, their immigration status, physical and cultural isolation, and financial burdens can make them vulnerable. Some migrants may agree to pay a smuggler to cross into another country to obtain work, only to find that similarly exploitative circumstances await them once they arrive—whether at their original destination or someplace altogether different. Thus, migrant smuggling (a crime involving transportation and the deliberate evasion of immigration laws) can turn into human trafficking, a crime of exploitation.

Many migrant workers have their identity or travel documents confiscated by a labor broker, sponsor, or employer. Identity documents, in addition to being a necessity for freedom of movement, are particularly important for accessing assistance, healthcare, and other important services. Document confiscation is a key practice used by traffickers as the employer gains significant control over the movement of the worker, and may prevent a worker from leaving an abusive situation, reporting abuse, or seeking employment elsewhere.

Traffickers may also use the threat of the legal process to hold workers in compelled service. Visa sponsorship systems, like the kafala system in effect in many countries in the Middle East, tie the issuance of employment visas to one employer or sponsor. If a worker intends to continue working, he is tied to that sponsor and has few options for challenging abusive practices. The fear of arrest or deportation is often enough to prevent a worker from leaving an exploitative situation or reporting abuse to authorities.

ILO estimates there are 232 million migrant workers globally, and that this number will continue to grow. A lack of both cooperation among source and destination countries and effective public or private standards on labor migration create a space where recruiters, labor brokers, and employers can abuse migrants without consequence. The demand for cheap labor and weak rule of law, coupled with high unemployment in developing countries, fosters the phenomenon of trafficking in persons. These factors are compounded where corrupt officials facilitate irregular migration by accepting bribes or false documentation.

The Connection to Sex Trafficking

When large populations of workers migrate for employment, especially to isolated locations, such as mining, logging, and agricultural camps, the incidence of sex trafficking in those areas may increase. Traffickers often advertise jobs for activities that are directly related to the primary industry, such as food service, mineral-sorting, or retail work in camp stores. Some individuals who take these jobs may instead find themselves the victims of sex trafficking. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, women who accepted jobs as waitresses in a bar near a mining camp in South Kivu province became trapped in debt bondage due to recruitment fees and medical expenses and were forced into prostitution to repay their debts.

Women may be forced into prostitution in the very regions and camps mentioned above where workers are in compelled service. Chinese companies operating in the Angolan construction sector recruit male Chinese workers, some of whom endure forced labor; these same operations also fraudulently recruit Chinese women who are later forced into prostitution.

The Role of Government

Government action is crucial in prosecuting trafficking cases, protecting victims, and preventing trafficking. By strengthening efforts in these areas, and by continuing to build partnerships with civil society and the private sector, governments are making serious strides in fighting modern slavery.

Governments can also play an important leadership role in combating human trafficking in supply chains. At home, governments can model and encourage multi-stakeholder dialogue and partnerships to bring together businesses and anti-trafficking experts to generate ideas and solutions and promote voluntary responsible business conduct initiatives. Governments should set clear expectations for businesses on human rights issues and adopt policies that promote greater transparency and better reporting on anti-trafficking efforts in supply chains. For example, in March, the United Kingdom enacted the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, which requires—among other things—commercial organizations with annual sales above a certain threshold to prepare annual statements outlining the steps they have taken to prevent human trafficking from occurring in their supply chain or in any part of their business.

Of course, governments have the responsibility to enforce labor laws, treat all workers fairly, including lawfully present and irregular migrants, and root out corruption—all factors that can help prevent trafficking. International cooperation to strengthen labor migration policies and manage the increasing flows of migrant labor is critical to reducing the number of people who fall prey to human traffickers. Better regulation of private labor recruiters can also help protect workers.

Further, governments can provide a model for the private sector by better monitoring their own supply chains, which look much like those of the private sector. Tiers of subcontractors, lack of transparency, and the sheer magnitude of expenditure all make it extremely difficult for governments to ensure that taxpayer money is not supporting the illicit business of human trafficking. Nevertheless, the massive spending by governments to procure goods and services each year gives them enormous influence and leverage in the marketplace to minimize the risks of human trafficking.

Governments can, and often do, prohibit government employees and contractors from engaging directly in trafficking in persons. In addition, some governments have policies in place that require contractors and subcontractors to ensure that employees have not participated in those activities that can lead to trafficking: charging recruitment fees, engaging in contract switching, and confiscating or retaining identification documents. These prohibitions must be backed up with effective enforcement.

The Private Sector: An Opportunity to Lead

Beyond the efforts of governments, companies can also take action to reduce the likelihood of trafficking in their supply chains and respect the rights of those who work to make their businesses successful.

There are many measures businesses can take to mitigate the risks of human trafficking throughout their operations. For starters, business leaders can create anti-trafficking policies that address the common risks in their operations and supply chains, ensure workers have the right to fair compensation and redress, train staff to understand the indicators of human trafficking, and put remediation plans in place before any allegations arise to allow for appropriate corrective action. Businesses should also work with government officials, NGOs, and recruiters in the countries where they source to gain a better understanding of workers’ vulnerabilities and commit to making improvements.

A company can demonstrate its commitment to responsibly source goods and services by creating a clear and comprehensive anti-trafficking policy, which includes an enforcement mechanism that is applied throughout the company’s supply chain. High-level executives should approve and promote such a policy and build it into company operations so supplier consideration goes beyond price and reliability, to include an assessment of labor practices. Among other things, an effective policy:

• prohibits human trafficking and those activities that facilitate it—including charging workers recruitment fees, contract fraud, and document retention;

• responds to industry- or region-specific risks;

• requires freedom of movement for workers;

• pays all employees at least the minimum wage in all countries of operation, preferably a living wage;

• includes a grievance mechanism and whistleblower protections; and

• applies to direct employees, as well as subcontractors, labor recruiters, and other business partners.

Such a policy sends a clear message to employees, business partners, investors, and consumers that human trafficking will not be tolerated. Coupled with effective risk assessments, monitoring, and serious remediation efforts, it can promote good labor practices throughout the supply chain.

Understanding how supply chains operate, where key suppliers are located, and what working conditions exist in those locations and sectors is vital to help a company gain control. By fully mapping its supply chain, down to the level of raw materials, a company can gain a better understanding of gaps in transparency. Companies can then create a plan to target those areas where high levels of spending overlap with industries or locations with high risks for human trafficking.

Once a risk assessment is completed, companies must begin to address problem areas, implement corrective measures, and monitor and enforce anti-trafficking policies. Monitoring often takes the form of social auditing, which—when done properly—can help to detect violations of company policies, including worker abuse. Yet, human trafficking is frequently difficult for auditors to detect. Companies that are serious about addressing forced labor in their supply chains should make sure that auditors are properly trained and equipped to look for known indicators of human trafficking, including the fraudulent recruitment practices discussed in this Report. Audits should be thorough, comprehensive, and periodic.

Finally, constant pressure on cutting costs can have a destabilizing effect on the proactive measures a company may take to prevent human trafficking. By incorporating anti-trafficking measures throughout an operation, including in company budget, training, policies, and protocols, business can make efforts to ensure that the dignity of workers throughout the supply chain is not sacrificed for higher profits.

Looking Forward

This year’s Trafficking in Persons Report presents information intended to highlight the risks many individuals encounter while seeking employment and the ways governments and businesses can take action to protect workers.

Governments, businesses, and individuals have a real opportunity to effect change by influencing the purchases they make and by demanding accountability and transparency in supply chains, promoting and enforcing policies that prohibit trafficking and the practices that facilitate it, and punishing those who perpetuate this practice.

By leveraging the strengths of different actors, the global market can become a place where innovation and growth thrive alongside a workforce free of human trafficking; supply chains create an environment of mutual benefit for both workers and business owners; and consumers celebrate the knowledge that their purchases are contributing to a system that elevates and respects human rights.