The Truth About Slavery

Have you ever Googled the word 'slavery'? You may be shocked at the results: there are more slaves in the world today than at any other point in human history: 30 million, 5.5 million of whom are children.

Slavery didn't end in the late 1800s. That's a myth. The truth is that slave labour is a global, thriving and profitable business worth nearly £90 billion ($150 billion) each year. That's more than three times Apple's profit.

Human trafficking, cheap labour, debt bondage and slavery are all intertwined. The common denominator is poverty. The victims are needy and vulnerable, they don't know their rights and they may think they have nothing to lose. Little do they know that their own freedom is the ultimate price to pay.

Last year, the collapse of a factory complex at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which produced garments for some popular Western brands, killed almost 1,200 workers. It was the world's worst industrial accident in 30 years, and highlighted the human costs of so-called 'fast fashion'. But slavery is clearly a global issue, and one that goes well beyond the fashion industry.

Recent reports have highlighted the plea of Nepalese builders in Qatar, who are paid 45p an hour during 20-hour workdays, and Burmese immigrants in Thailand, who are trafficked, brutally beaten and enslaved at high seas to fish the prawns that end up on our plates.

Today, if you compare state GDP to net profits, global corporations are bigger and more powerful than many nation states. However, these transnational entities have very little to be accountable for. Their supply chains have become increasingly long and complex, and they are often outsourcing responsibility to third party certification schemes that in reality don't guarantee much at all.

An increasingly global economy calls for international standards and regulations. We have them across the airline industry, why shouldn't we have them to keep slavery out of the supply chains?

But global regulation is certainly not the only answer. If we use the market as a force for good, we could see change at a much faster pace. Governments can take years to pass laws, and then perhaps never enforce them, while major corporations have the capacity to switch suppliers in a day, making a real impact across the market, and changing the lives of millions of individuals much faster.

It can happen. We'll know we are on the right track only when we will see a £5 dress as a red flag, and not as a bargain.

Slavery in the supply chain is one of the themes at the forthcoming Trust Women Conference, November 18-19 London. For more information, visit