Modern slavery and exploitation: Who pays the price?

The products we buy and food we eat cost us so little to consume, but so much for those who are responsible for them. It’s time to wake up to the horrors of modern-day slavery.

Christmas shopping
Shoppers browse a shop during the annual year-end holiday season. Image: Herry Lawford, CC BY 2.0

My computer, my mug of coffee, my cotton t-shirt and my sneakers. As I write this, I can’t help but think about the costs of these items. Simultaneously so little to me and so costly to others…those in the factories, plantations and bending over sewing machines.

Recent figures from the International Labour Organization and Walk Free Foundation tell us that there are approximately 25 million people globally who are in situations of forced labour — and about one in five are children.

The products of human trafficking and everyday labour exploitation are everywhere we look. But, what we cannot see are the injuries, illnesses and disabilities to the workers who produce these goods and services. These stay well-hidden to most of us on the consumer end. We need to wake up to horrors of modern-day slavery, says UK Prime Minister Theresa May recently.

When we hear the words ‘modern slavery’ or ‘human trafficking’, it is easy to only picture images of locks and chains or mafia-type organised crime. Yet, modern day slavery also occurs worldwide in the form of labour exploitation, which is sadly very ordinary, and tragically, a persistent but overlooked global health crisis.

Few corners of the globe are free of aspiring individuals willing to work long hours and travel far distances to help their families by earning low wages in dangerous jobs like commercial fishing, brick kiln and leather tanning workshops, agricultural fields, food processing plants and in domestic servitude.

In fact, the numbers of people traveling for work are enormous. Approximately 150 million migrant workers cross international borders for jobs every year — and this is probably only a fraction of people leaving their homes for employment, because no one really knows the numbers of people who migrate for work within their own country — for jobs that others do not want to do.

So, while many migrant workers may earn more money than if they had stayed at home, the toll on an individual and global health is massive. The morbidity and mortality from hazardous and exploitative work affects not only the mothers, fathers and youth inhaling harmful chemicals, working at death-defying heights at construction sites or enslaved for months or years at a time on dangerous fishing vessels, but the resulting physical and psychological disability can cause generational cycles of further exploitation and harm.

Decent work has been declared a formal United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), but labour exploitation has yet to be seen as the endemic global health problem that it is. This is why colleagues working on health and trafficking have joined together with the journal PLOS Medicine to offer a special Collection on Human Trafficking, Exploitation and Health to offer policy and clinical practice responses.

The products of human trafficking and everyday labour exploitation are everywhere we look. But, what we cannot see are the injuries, illnesses and disabilities to the workers who produce these goods and services.

We offer a prevention framework to address modern slavery and its less-well-recognised sibling, labor exploitation to stop what known as 3D work: dirty, dangerous, and demeaning.

To prevent human trafficking and reduce labour exploitation, we need to integrate the various trade, labour and health tools in the policy arsenal.

Governments need to mandate strong occupational health and safety protections and fair remuneration for millions of workers in low-wage sectors. Companies need to invest more time and money to prevent abuses that occur in extended supply chains. Healthcare professionals need to become better prepared to detect and respond to individuals and families who become ensnared in harmful work. Consumers can have their say by taking a bit more time to check how their goods have been produced.

As awareness to the human rights violations of modern forms of slavery grow, the health burden of human trafficking and everyday forms of exploitation needs urgent action.


Cathy Zimmerman is a behavioural and social scientist. She is a professor of global health and development at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit

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