Grace explains how Walk Free has been working towards eradicating modern slavery, how it impacts the fashion industry, and what solutions we can implement to drastically reduce the numbers of people living in modern slavery.
“Can you define modern slavery for our audience and its gendered nature?”
Modern slavery is the systemic removal of a person’s freedom, where one person is exploited by another for personal or financial gain. Each day, people are tricked, coerced, or forced into exploitative situations that they cannot refuse or leave. And each day, we buy the products and use the services they have been forced to make or offer without realising the hidden human cost.
Modern slavery covers a set of specific legal concepts including forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery and slavery-like practices, and human trafficking.
At its core, modern slavery is a manifestation of extreme inequality. So, like many of the world's greatest challenges, it has a disproportionate impact on women and girls. Walk Free's Stacked Odds shows us that from forced marriage to forced labour, women and girls are overrepresented - be it their most basic human rights not being valued or protected by law, or exploitation in traditionally gendered industries such as the care economy. The unique vulnerability for women and girls persists for many reasons, but mainly it is because girls, all over the world, are still valued less than boys. In many places, girls are framed as an economic burden to their families, which is cemented by being born into social systems that work to disadvantage them.
For an industry like fashion, where forced labour, debt bondage and exploitative working environments are sadly the norm, women and girls make up the majority of the workforce. That is why at Walk Free we say "if your feminism doesn't include the women who made your clothes - it is not feminism".
Walk Free is an international human rights group working to accelerate the end of all forms of modern slavery. We are an evidence-based advocacy organisation, which engages with governments, businesses, investors, faith groups, survivor leaders, and grassroots organisations to drive systems change and empower the most vulnerable. We are the authors of the Global Slavery Index (GSI), the world’s most comprehensive dataset on modern slavery. This dataset is the base for governments, businesses, and NGOs worldwide, shaping policies, legislation, and international law.
Further, Walk Free catalyses change through collaboration and partnership. Our work involves empowering frontline liberation and community leadership by working alongside key changemakers such as the Freedom Fund, Survivor Alliance, and Educate Girls, fellow leaders in the social impact space. As the secretariat of the Bali Process Government and Business Forum, we bring together business and government leaders from the Asia Pacific to work on transnational crime and cross-cutting issues of exploitation through global supply chains.
Walk Free also convenes the Global Freedom Network, an international interfaith organisation harnessing leaders of all faiths to drive impact against modern slavery. Additionally, Walk Free serves as the secretariat of the Investors Against Slavery and Trafficking Asia Pacific, comprised of 42 investors with AU$9.4 trillion in managed assets. Our collaboration extends to other leading organisations like Wikirates, Gallup World Poll, the International Labour Organization and the International Organization for Migration to produce cutting-edge modern slavery research.
"Walk Free has recently launched the Global Slavery Index (GSI) which tallied 50 million people living in modern slavery globally. Sadly, the numbers have risen by 10 million in the last five years, but what role does the fashion industry play in this?`"
One thing that hasn't changed in 2023 is fashion's role in fuelling the number of people living in modern slavery. Fashion remains one of the most exploitative and environmentally damaging industries on the planet. The complex, multi-tier supply chains that exist in the industry leave workers highly vulnerable to modern slavery and other forms of extreme exploitation. From the growing of the cotton, the dying of the fabric, to the manufacturing of the garment, exploitation occurs at almost every level of the supply chain.
Garments are the second highest valued at-risk import product among G20 nations (the world's twenty largest economies), racking up an annual value of $147.9 billion. On top of that, the G20 collectively import $12.7b worth of textiles at-risk of being produced with forced labour. Wherever you are shopping, it is highly likely that your wardrobe has come into contact with modern slavery. And unfortunately, ethical production in the fashion industry remains the exception, rather than the rule.
“What solutions should the fashion industry implement to drastically reduce those numbers?”
It’s time to see radical transparency in the fashion industry. That means consumers can easily know where their clothes are made, who is making them, and the working conditions they were made in.
As consumers, we can drive this behaviour change; by first and foremost asking questions and then using our dollars (where we can) to support sustainable brands. Good On You and the Fashion Transparency Index are great tools for gauging how brands are treating their workers and the planet. Remember, a brand's claim of sustainability doesn't always guarantee it.
If a brand can’t show you that they’re doing the right thing, please assume they are doing the wrong.
But it’s not just up to the buyers; governments need to step up too. We need to see more laws implemented that require businesses to proactively prove they are safeguarding human rights in their supply chains. Some countries like Germany and Canada have enacted due diligence laws, and soon the EU will follow suit. But we must see the same action taken by more countries. It should not be considered normal for consumers to know close to nothing about where their clothes come from.
The reality is that the world’s most powerful nations are driving modern slavery on their shores and within global supply chains. More than half of all people living in modern slavery call G20 countries their home, and these nations also annually import nearly half a trillion dollars’ worth of products that may involve forced labour. Further, these countries heavily rely on migrants to make up a significant part of their workforce; yet migrant workers still remain three times more likely to face exploitation than non-migrant workers.
Goods we buy and use every day continue to be at high risk of being made using forced labour; including electronics, garments, palm oil, solar panels, and textiles.
While some legislation does exist, it continues to fall short in protecting the world’s most vulnerable people. From Australia to the United States, to Saudi Arabia, there are serious gaps in legislation that allow exploitation to thrive. Workers and survivors lack proper protections, tied visa systems drive vulnerability, and the absence of due diligence legislation allows businesses to work with opaque supply chains.
These countries have the influence to change market standards. It’s time the world’s most powerful nations take responsibility for their actions.
"Last year, you spent some time on the ground in Bethlehem, the West Bank and Ramallah. How has the threat of modern slavery been heightened in this region as a result of the recent devastation of the Israel-Gaza War? (Wording of question can be amended to GF’s preference)"
From Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan, to Israel and Palestine, conflicts put the most vulnerable people at even higher risk of extreme exploitation. During times of war, people struggle to access basic needs because widespread conflict damages essential infrastructure and services, such as electricity, drinking water, and hospitals. At the same time, without a stable government in power, the breakdown in the rule of law allows perpetrators to act without consequences.
And as conflict continues, massive disruptions to life increase the risk of forced labour and forced marriage. Further, the world has seen discriminatory attitudes deepen during conflict which exacerbates vulnerability for marginalised groups.
The reality is that those of the Palestinian population, the majority of whom are children, that survive the rampant conflict will continue to face heightened risks of exploitation in the future. The international community must understand the integral role that conflict plays in perpetuating systemic exploitation and disadvantage (like modern slavery) so that we may curb these risks and protect vulnerable populations.
“What’s your personal approach to fashion?”
I live by two essential rules of fashion:
- The most ethical wardrobe you can own is the one you already have.
- If your feminism doesn’t include the women who made your clothes, it isn’t feminism.
My personal approach to fashion is to invest in pieces that I love, with brands I know are values aligned. I am a very proud outfit repeater and second-hand shopper - which is the key to creating a sustainable wardrobe that you will want to wear over and over again.
The only kind of shopping I actually enjoy is second hand - I love being able to hunt for treasures and add things without agonising over them when needed (like jumpers, since moving over here!) Like many people, I love to dress up and put looks together - I find it so much more satisfying doing that through thrifting rather than trying to find anything new. I also believe that's how true style cuts through; it’s indifferent to the trends.