COP27: the impact of climate change on modern slavery must not be ignored

7 November 2022

Image credit: Thammachak Sotiya, via Shutterstock.

This year we have seen the devastating impact on human lives by environmental events, amplified by climate change, such as the floods in Pakistan and devastating drought in the Horn of Africa, caused by five years of lack of rain.

We know that in many cases the devastation and damage – such as losing homes, belongings, and farmland – caused by such disasters can leave people vulnerable to modern slavery.

Yet, as world leaders gather for the next two weeks in Egypt for the annual climate change conference (Conference of the Parties, COP), this connection between climate change and modern slavery remains off the agenda.

For last year’s COP, we issued our call to global leaders to recognise the connection between climate change and modern slavery, and for this to be incorporated into climate action.

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Alarmingly, our call remains largely unanswered, and meanwhile, governments have failed to keep promises to make and keep the necessary commitments to slow down global warming.

In the meantime, the number of people experiencing modern slavery, and suffering the effects of climate change have increased.

Global Estimates of modern slavery from the ILO, IOM and Walk Free Foundation, published in September 2022, found that almost 50 million people are in modern slavery. That’s a rise of 10 million since the previous estimates were released in 2017.

This increase has been driven by the compounding crises of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and armed conflicts.

With global leaders meeting again for the next two weeks to discuss and agree upon new commitments, we outline how climate change and modern slavery are connected, and our demands to global leaders to take action.

How are modern slavery and climate change connected?

Image credit: Yupa Watchanakit, via Shutterstock.

People in low-income countries suffer the most from climate change. These countries experience some of the most severe climate effects, and yet have the least capacity to adapt, and find it hardest to recover from the loss and damage of climate impacts.

In many cases these conditions lead to people being pushed to migrate, as they lose their lands, jobs or ability to make a living. This migration happens both within and across borders.

Increasing evidence – including our own research – is showing that in many cases the people and families pushed to migrate by climate change become vulnerable to exploitation, forced labour and trafficking.

For example, last year, we published research with the Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), with examples from Bangladesh and Ghana which showed how families who had once made their living from farming had become victims of modern slavery after losing their livelihoods.

Further research by IIED in two districts of India found that people migrating to escape slow onset climate disasters – like drought – are at particular risk of exploitation. This risk is higher than those impacted by sudden climate events such as flooding.

Emerging research also highlights that this impact is not equal across society. Research has found that women and children, often already marginalised and vulnerable communities, and indigenous peoples are all likely at higher risk of vulnerability to modern slavery as a result of climate change.

In some cases, people who have lost their livelihoods due to environmental degradation and climate change even find themselves in situations of forced labour in climate-destructive industries, such as resource extraction, deforestation and fisheries. In this way, there is a vicious circle between climate change and modern slavery.

In other instances, people find themselves trapped instead, without any opportunity to migrate elsewhere, and equally at higher risk of modern slavery, as their precariousness increases and livelihood opportunities continue to reduce.

Separately, we also know that many of the industries crucial to our transition to clean energy are reliant on forced labour, for example the materials used in our electric cars and solar panels. This includes Uyghurs in forced labour working in coal-fuelled furnaces for the production of polysilicon, the key material for solar panels.

As we undertake the urgent transition to a greener economy, it’s therefore crucial that we have a “just” transition, where workers do not find themselves paying the price for the changing economy.

So, what needs to be done at COP27?

Image credit: Billion Photos, via Shutterstock.

We continue our call to governments to recognise the connection between climate change and modern slavery, by incorporating climate-induced migration and vulnerability to modern slavery into global and national climate mechanisms, plans and finance, and by ensuring that the transition to clean energy provides decent work for all workers.

Specifically, governments should:

  • Set firm targets and take action within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change mechanisms, including by creating provisions in climate finance for migration and modern slavery related responses
  • Incorporate action to tackle vulnerability to modern slavery into national climate adaptation, resilience, and loss and damage development plans
  • Consider the need to address climate-induced risks of modern slavery in ongoing international efforts to target climate-induced migration and displacement issues, including the Warsaw International Mechanism’s Task Force on Displacement
  • Use the opportunity of a Just Transition to sustainable renewable energy to provide decent work for all workers in the renewable energy sector, and tackle instances where forced labour is used in mineral extraction and manufacture of solar panels and renewable energy supply chains

These recommendations need to be taken within the broader commitments and actions on greenhouse gas emissions and climate finance, which are necessary to urgently address the climate emergency.

What we are doing about it?

Our work on climate change is at an early stage, but we have big ambitions.

We have published major research reports establishing the links between climate change and modern slavery, and began our work to raise this link in international climate debates, with our initial focus on last year’s COP in Glasgow.

To this end, we welcomed, therefore, this past year the appointment of the first UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, and the report looking at trafficking of persons in the context of climate change by the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

Overall, UN experts are listening: last week a group of UN experts issued a statement calling for human rights to be integrated into negotiations at this year’s COP, in which they noted that climate change is increasing the risk of human trafficking.

We now need further research and action, which establishes the connections between climate change and modern slavery, and the locally-led solutions to address this.

The global power holders must take action which responds to the needs of those most vulnerable to the effects of modern slavery and climate change.

We are striving to build a global movement, led by organisations in the Global South, to address how climate change fuels modern slavery.

Find out more about our work on climate change and modern slavery here.

To support our work, you can join our movement to end modern slavery.