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Unseen Victims: Modern Slavery in the Office?

May 6th, 2024

Modern slavery is found closer than you may think.


Often, when we talk about modern slavery, a picture is painted of exploitation in factories and farmlands, images far removed from the shiny corporate office buildings where much of our usual audience spends each day. Most will be sympathetic to the plight of the millions of victims and pledge to support the cause to address this crime but still assume that modern slavery is not something that they would ever witness in their daily lives.


What if we told you that modern slavery could exist in the very office building where you work?


It may seem absurd, at first, to think that a victim of modern slavery could be walking around your office. No, we are not referring to your overworked colleagues, who may quip about their long hours and overbearing bosses. We are referring to the millions of subcontracted workers that often go far under the radar of daily office life. The workers are fundamental to running any office space, but many who frequent the same office do not often take the time to stop and consider.


These workers may include cleaning staff, refuse collectors, maintenance workers and many others. These are people who are often hired through external contractors to carry out the low-paid jobs that keep the corporate ecosystem ticking along.


Why are these jobs vulnerable to modern slavery?


There are a number of characteristics that mean that there may be modern slavery risk within this population of workers.


Any use of third-party subcontracting creates hidden risks. When the company does not directly employ the staff involved but uses another company to arrange workers, they can immediately lose sight of the conditions under which these staff have been recruited. This creates vulnerabilities of hidden recruitment costs being levied on workers, fraudulent employment contracts, lack of payment and exploitation that is undetected.


A high proportion of the low-wage jobs in offices, like cleaning and maintenance staff, are filled by migrant workers. Migrant workers are a particularly vulnerable group to labour exploitation. They may have dealt with multiple recruitment agencies and brokers to secure the job, even accepting unfavourable terms or high recruitment fees in order to access a job which they will rely on to provide for their families back home. Unscrupulous traffickers prey on these vulnerabilities, taking advantage and exploiting workers who may lack the means to speak up against their conditions.


When most companies are developing their anti-slavery strategies, they focus their energies on those areas that are perceived as the highest risk. This may be product supply chains for retailers and manufacturers or anti-money laundering strategies for banks. The risk of modern slavery within office buildings is often overlooked or not considered at all. If companies exclude this risk, then it is possible that they are not adequately implementing risk prevention measures, and modern slavery issues may go undetected.


Photo by Nuno Silva on Unsplash

What can companies do to tackle this risk?


  • Take an anonymous self-assessment to understand how your efforts benchmark against industry standards.
  • Incorporate this risk into your anti-slavery strategy and roadmapping.
  • Carry out assessments to understand the extent of the workforce within your office buildings, identifying possible at-risk populations.
  • Where possible, speak with staff to ask questions about their employment conditions.
  • Have clear policies and codes of conduct in place for subcontractors, which state your expectations regarding employment conditions.
  • Distribute materials to workers in their own language, outlining their rights and information for channels to report grievances.
  • If necessary, work with other companies in the office building to ensure a collective voicing of standards and expectations.

Contact us to see how we can support you with risk assessment, training, and awareness raising on modern slavery issues in the corporate world.

Author – Phoebe Ewen

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