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Impact of climate crisis on modern slavery

Climate catastrophes will force individuals into situations of desperation, posing an increased risk for them to become vulnerable to exploitation, writes Megan White from the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull.

Globally, endeavours have been made for the prevention and eradication of modern slavery. Target 8.7 of the UN’s current Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] aiming to ‘end modern slavery and human trafficking’ and the G7 financial minister’s recent joint statement condemning the exploitation of people in global supply chains highlight this.

Nonetheless, the International Labour Organisation has estimated that just under 50 million people were trapped in modern slavery in 2021. It is well established that global supply chains are hubs for the international exploitation of people. The NGO, Anti-Slavery International, for instance has reported that 16 million people are currently exploited in the private sector with links to supply chains. Exploitation is a common feature at all stages in production, from harvesting the initial raw materials to manufacturing and shipping.

Megan White
Megan White, Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation

The growing challenge of the climate crisis adds an additional layer of complexity to modern slavery and human trafficking globally. Environmental degradation, loss of land, security and livelihoods are set to push millions of people into vulnerable situations that risk exploitation.

Moreover, for those already at risk of exploitation, the climate crisis will only add to their vulnerability. Heatwaves, earthquakes, extreme flooding and wildfires are just some of the consequences of the ongoing climate crisis. Most often the poorest members of society from low-income countries are impacted disproportionately because of the limited national disaster relief capacity of the State, and the fact that many individuals rely on optimal climate conditions to support their livelihoods.

Primarily this is seen in the agricultural sector. As a direct result of this, climate catastrophes will force individuals into situations of desperation, posing an increased risk for them to become vulnerable to exploitation.

This is a universal challenge that the international community needs to address. The joint report produced by the International Institute for Environment and Development and Anti-Slavery International in 2021 cements this, finding that drought in North Ghana has forced migration to cities, and upon reaching these cities, individuals were at higher risk of modern slavery, particularly debt bondage, trafficking and sexual exploitation. Moreover, the 2016 report of the International Organisation for Migration [IOM] revealed that in India, exploiters tend to recruit before the harvest season or in periods of drought as these are often the hardest time periods for agricultural workers, ensuring advantage can be taken of them at the peak of their vulnerability.

These brief examples demonstrate that climate change is already exacerbating modern slavery, acting as a driver for vulnerability. On an international level the IOM has stressed the importance of understanding the ‘hidden’ consequences of the climate crisis, and that it goes far beyond extreme weather conditions. Considering this, responses to modern slavery must include the impact of climate change, particularly in areas with poor governance and insufficient national protections established for potential climate migrants.

However, a lack of corporate social responsibility, the prospect of being involved in a 150 billion dollar economy and a huge consumer demand from the West underscore a lack of willingness by exploiters to amend the appalling human rights violations in modern slavery. This is further compounded by the sophisticated recruitment strategies and desperate situations of vulnerability which foster ideal conditions to help facilitate modern slavery.

International Law prohibits modern slavery, with some forms of slavery even prosecuted as crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court. However, clear gaps remain in protections against those subjected to modern slavery, as demonstrated by the examples and statistics outlined previously.

Enforcement of norms is unclear, and because of the various components of modern slavery, UN bodies, human rights regulators and other international systems are fragmented, leading to inefficiencies. This is further exacerbated and complicated by the challenges brought on through climate change.

Although modern slavery is a feature of the SDGs for 2030, in part due to the UK government launching an international campaign to raise awareness of this issue, many parties seem uninterested and unwilling to initiate change to prevent the exploitation and commodification of people, particularly when the demand is so high in this multi-billion dollar industry.

On a more local level, the University of Hull’s 2030 agenda is focused on carving out a more equitable and sustainable world, by addressing inequalities and injustices including exploitation. Moreover, the expertise of the Wilberforce Institute has been utilised by organisations to map out the risks associated with labour and human rights violations by large corporations in their supply chains.

The Institute also remains at the forefront of delivering knowledge and conducting research on modern slavery within the UK. However, as Professor Dave Petley, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Hull, reflected on in his blog for Anti-Slavery Day, there is still much to do.

Megan graduated from the University of Hull with a BA in Politics and International Relations in 2021 and is completing an internship as Modern Slavery and Partnerships administrator at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, as part of her Masters in International Affairs. Megan is specialising in Human Rights and Global Governance at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

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