Modern slavery at heart of new virus outbreak

Land of the unfree: Roughly 400,000 people are held in conditions of modern slavery in the US today.

Will the world ever eliminate slavery for good? Nearly 200 years since the UK outlawed the abhorrent practice, modern-day slaves are revealed to be the source of a new coronavirus outbreak.

“They make profits like hell and pay us in peanuts,” shouts the factory foreman to the new recruit.

He has to be loud. His voice is drowned out by the sounds of the sweatshop: the hum of machinery, the hissing of industrial irons, and the chatter of dozens of workers crammed into a hot and tiny room.

As the new worker heaves yet another roll of fabric from the dilapidated factory floor, a bead of sweat appears on his forehead.

And, at the end of the day, he will take home just £3.50 for every hour of backbreaking work.

Where do you think this scene might have taken place?

The answer is surprising: the factory sits in the shadows of Leicester’s ancient cathedral at the heart of England, a UK newspaper revealed this weekend. Most of its workers are from the city’s South Asian community, and they are making clothes for some of the UK’s biggest fast fashion brands.

And now doctors think factories like this one may be the source of a new coronavirus outbreak in the city, causing the government to enforce the first local lockdown.

With cramped conditions making social distancing impossible, it is no surprise that the virus spread like wildfire through the workshop.

But Leicester is just one part of a global problem. An estimated 40 million people worldwide are trapped in slavery. They are being made to work through intimidation and violence, or to pay off debts, in factories, on farms or construction sites. And, since 2017, forced marriages have also been recognised as a form of slavery.

In fact, slave labour is a huge part of the global supply chain. It is a secret economy worth over £116 billion every year, a third of which is generated in developed countries.

As one 2017 report put it: “Forced labourers produced some of the food we eat and the clothes we wear, and they have cleaned the buildings in which many of us live or work.”

People often think of slavery as a problem of the past. The practice has been illegal in every country in the world since 1981. The word itself evokes images of shackles and transatlantic ships.

Yet astonishingly, more people are enslaved today than at any other time in history.

Today, rather than being abducted and sold, many victims are tricked into slavery. Last year, British police jailed eight members of a gang who promised vulnerable Polish people well-paid jobs in England. Instead, the gang stole their wages and forced them into rat-infested homes.

But what is being done about the problem?

Anti-slavery campaigners say that activism is working. In 2005, sports brand Nike finally admitted to abuse at its factories, including restricted access to water, after a global boycott campaign hit the company’s profits.

In the last five years, countries like the UK have introduced new laws to stamp out exploitation. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 forced companies to be more transparent about their actions. Convicted people traffickers now face life sentences in prison.

And, in France, businesses can now be fined up to €10m (£9m) if they fail to publish human rights reports.

So, will the world ever eliminate slavery for good?

An invisible evil

Yes, say some. Growing awareness, through initiatives like Anti-Slavery Day, is the key to solving this worldwide problem. Finally, the tide is turning against exploitation: more and more countries are making laws not just banning slavery outright, but targeting the global companies that turn a blind eye to forced labour in their supply chains and the processes enabling the trade of humans beings.

No, say others. The continued existence of garment factories, like those in Leicester, show that new laws are not working.The economist Adam Smith once argued that humans have an instinctive desire to dominate others. As long as capitalism exists, so will the instinct for corporations to find cheap labour. It is impossible to outlaw cruelty: human nature will always find a way round any new legislation.

You Decide

  1. Is it unethical to buy clothes from fast fashion brands?
  2. Is anybody ever totally free?


  1. Design a poster to raise awareness of modern slavery. How would you change people’s ideas of what slavery looks like?
  2. Research the anti-slavery laws in your country. Do you think they go far enough? How would you change them?

Some People Say...

“I know that there are no limits to which the powers of privilege will not go to keep the workers in slavery.”

Mother Jones (1837-1930), Irish American union organiser

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed by law-makers and activists that in order to prevent exploitation, more focus needs to be on the key players who control the global supply chain. We know that corporations like Nike were able to ignore forced labour in their factories by claiming they were not responsible for the companies they hired to make their products. This is why many new anti-slavery laws now target corporations – for example, the US banned the import of goods made by forced labourers in 2015.
What do we not know?
One area of debate surrounds how to make sure that new modern slavery laws are actually working. In the UK, despite a rise in identified victims, the number of people convicted of slavery and trafficking offences actually fell from 69 in 2016 to 42 in 2018. The practice is secretive by nature: many victims are unable or unwilling to come forward. And one of the many problems campaigners face is that, when new legislation outlaws exploitation in one location, factories simply move elsewhere.

Word Watch

The person who supervises other workers in the factory.
A factory or workshop, normally making clothes, where people work for long hours with little pay.
Old and in poor condition due to neglect.
Fast fashion
Cheap clothing produced quickly by big retailers in response to the latest trends. The factory in Leicester produced clothes for Boohoo, a UK-based online fashion shop for young people.
Local lockdown
After a spike in coronavirus cases in Leicester, the UK government banned social gatherings in the city, shut schools, prevented restaurants and hairdressers from reopening, and urged people to stay at home.
Threatening someone; usually, to persuade them to do something you want them to do.
Forced marriages
Anti-Slavery International successfully campaigned to have forced marriage recognised as a form of slavery by the International Labour Organisation. There are an estimated 15.4m people in forced marriages; most are girls and women. Over a third of people forced to marry were children, of whom 40% were under 15 when they were forced into marriage.
Supply chain
The entire process of making and selling goods, from factories to high street shops.
Even though Mauritania, a country in Northwest Africa, abolished slavery in 1981, it only became a criminal offence in 2007.
Police believe that the gang had more than 400 victims. Their sentences ranged from three to 11 years.
Modern Slavery Act 2015
Any business that has a turnover of £36m or more and supplies goods and services in the UK now has to publish an annual statement setting out what steps it is taking to ensure no slavery exists in its supply chains.
Anti-Slavery Day
Marked every year on 18 October, since 2010 in the UK, to raise awareness of the dangers and consequences of modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
Adam Smith
An 18th-Century Scottish economist often known as the “father of economics”.


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