How Climate Change Affects Modern Slavery

Changing weather patterns have left millions at risk of losing their homes and livelihoods, driving migration and leaving people at risk of exploitation. For people already at risk of modern slavery, the climate crisis presents a new threat to their freedom. 

Modern slavery and climate change have emerged as coexisting crises in the modern world. While recent academic and policy-based discussions have well-established this phenomena, a limited conversation has taken place on the link between them. 

By recognising the link between climate change and modern slavery, we can better understand the complex forces that give rise to its multiple impacts, including poverty and human rights issues, which in turn will enable us to find more effective solutions to address them. 

What is the connection between climate change and modern slavery, and what challenges does this present for particular supply chains? 

The Link Between Climate Change & Modern Slavery

Climate change affects every single aspect of life on earth. Several research studies have shown that climate change causes poverty and that poverty drives human trafficking. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires and droughts threaten lives; driving people from their homes and jeopardising food sources and livelihoods. At the end of 2020, a record 55 million people had been forced to leave their homes due to extreme weather events. 

According to research, if modern slaves were a nation, they’d be the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide across the globe, after China and the US. At the same time, changes to the worldwide ecosystem due to human activities have substantial influences on human life, creating vulnerability and displacement that drive modern slavery. 

Working in Nepal as a Public Health Officer, Matt Friedman, now CEO of the Mekong Club, saw the impacts of modern slavery first-hand. “We were finding girls as young as 12 years old, who were tricked, deceived and forced into working in brothels in India. Many of them would see upto 20 guys a day everyday,” shared Matt, on a recent ethiXbase webinar, which can be viewed here. 

Although poverty affects deforestation rates, often people living in scarcity and with inherited debts end up working in agricultural jobs that are vulnerable to forced labour. Debt-bondage and contract slavery force people to work in industries that involve strenuous and hazardous manual labour. 

For instance, in brick kilns, forest clearing, mineral mining, or fishery, workers may be compelled to stay and work in abusive and exploitative conditions to repay a debt that has accumulated, and one that continues to be maintained strategically. 

Simply put, the relationship between modern slavery, environmental damage and climate change are two-way in nature. On one hand, modern slavery practices contribute to additional environmental damage and climate change. This includes the use of debt-bonded labour in activities that harm local environments, while also contributing to climate change through increased levels of GHG emissions. 

On the other hand, growing environmental pressures associated with climate change, such as rising sea levels and the increasing prevalence and severity of droughts, worsen existing vulnerabilities and disparities of local people that may render them vulnerable to abusive labour practices. “Employers who can destroy the environment without care are often the ones who can destroy lives without care,” says Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free The Slaves. Environmental and anti-slavery organisations should therefore work together to identify such vulnerabilities and take action.

Source: UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner

Impact of Modern Slavery & Climate Change on Businesses

While slavery affects all sectors, research suggests those such as agriculture, manufacturing, food and beverage, construction and transport are the most exposed to exploitative practices. Businesses within these industries are facing increasing scrutiny from investors, NGOs, customers and other stakeholders on their social and climate policies, together with global modern slavery reporting obligations. 

Each industry must therefore expand its existing concept of economic development and risk to avoid being negatively impacted by modern slavery and climate change. They will need to think of not only generating jobs and stimulating economies, but doing so in a way that prevents the environmental impact of modern slavery. With the world dangerously close to running out of time to stop a climatecatastrophe, the time to act is now.

At ethiXbase, we help organisations identify modern slavery and climate change risks in their supply chains. Our new ESG risk management platform allows businesses to assess, build and continuously monitor the environmental impact of modern slavery throughout their third-party network and take necessary action.

For more information or to book a free demo, please visit:

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