With Christmas coming soon and last-minute shopping underway, it is worth questioning the origin of some of our favourite holiday and gift items. It is highly likely that some of the gifts under your tree – including
clothing, chocolate and mobile phones – will have been made by children working in exploitative or hazardous conditions of modern slavery.
It is difficult to tell what items from which businesses might be affected. This is because child exploitation usually takes place a long way down the supply chain (for example, in the cobalt mine or cocoa farm) and, unless brought to light through an investigation or exposé, is largely invisible.
Our team at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute is working to uncover modern slavery practices around the world, and to improve how governments, law enforcement agencies, businesses and consumers combat child labour exploitation.
We developed a systemic model called the circles of analysis for investigating, protecting and prosecuting those involved in child criminal exploitation. This multi-agency framework explores interactions between child, perpetrator and the environment – such as by uniting law enforcement and child protection services – to understand when and why child criminal exploitation takes place.
What is modern slavery?
There are several categories of modern slavery and exploitation affecting millions of people worldwide:
Modern slavery: the illegal exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain. Examples include human trafficking, forced labour, forced marriage and debt bondage.
Child labour exploitation: when a child is forced to work under threat of punishment, usually with little or no payment.
Child trafficking: the relocation of a child for the purposes of exploitation.
Child sexual exploitation: a form of exploitation where children are forced into sex work for the profit of others.
Child criminal exploitation: a form of exploitation where children are forced to commit crimes for the profit of others.
According to the International Labour Organisation, a UN agency whose mandate is to advance social and economic justice by setting international labour standards, there are more than 40 million people in modern slavery across the globe, a quarter of whom are children. There are also nearly 25 million people trapped in forced labour.
160 million children are in child labour, and 79 million of these working in hazardous conditions. Nearly 3 million children are subject to forced labour.
What can we do about it?
Most advice will tell you to not buy cheap or “fast fashion” items that are more likely to have been made in sweatshops. You can also search a company’s website for a modern slavery statement that supposedly guarantees their supply chains are slavery free. Or you can study up on business policies and practices so you can satisfy yourself you’re shopping ethically.
All of the above are good suggestions, but they’re not very practical due to three key conflicts: time, budget and profit. Christmas is a very busy time of year. While we might want to research businesses so we can shop ethically, the reality is we rarely have the time. Christmas is also a very expensive time of year, and for many, shopping ethically may not be financially possible. “Ethical” items are often pricier than items that may have been the product of child labour exploitation.
Finally, Christmas is a very lucrative time of year for businesses – and cheap labour is one way to make money. We’ve seen examples of this in the UK with regards to minimum wage and zero hours contracts, and a recent report shows that the effectiveness of modern slavery statements is questionable because they have not delivered meaningful changes in corporate behaviour.
Instead, we suggest an easy way to take action and pressure businesses on the topic of modern slavery. While sitting in front of your telly in your Christmas jumper, drinking wine, eating chocolates and surfing the web, simply use your phone to do the following for the businesses you bought presents from:
Online search for: [company name] child exploitation / modern slavery / forced labour.
Go to the company website and send this message: “As one of your customers, can you reassure me that you are 100% certain your products are free of child labour exploitation / modern slavery?”
Or, for a bit more detail, try this: “As one of your customers, how do you audit your supply chain -– and can you provide evidence that you’re 100% free of child labour exploitation / modern slavery?”
Businesses monitor how their website and mobile apps are searched, visited and used. If enough of us take a moment to search or ask questions about child labour exploitation, businesses will prioritise it accordingly.
Shopping affordably and ethically can be a difficult balance to navigate, but by learning more about child exploitation and taking this small action, we can all play a part in a happier Christmas for all.
Simon Green has received funding from the European Commission, British Academy and Leverhulme.
Simon Green is the Independent Chair of the Ethics and Scrutiny Board for the Humberside Police and Crime Commissioner.