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Understand the Risks of Forced Labor in Global Supply Chains

Geography – Country

Both the country where goods are made or service are performed and the country of origin from which jobseekers have migrated for work have risk factors, including political, rule of law, GDP and other macro characteristics.


Political Risk Factors in the Country of Production


Supply chains that include goods or services from countries with weak legal protections for civil liberties and workers’ rights are at risk for forced labor. When safeguards for civil liberties such as freedoms of assembly, association, and expression are weak, civil society organizations are less able to monitor government and private sector actors and hold them accountable for unethical labor practices. Lack of formal protection for workers’ rights leaves workers with limited legal recourse in the face of workplace abuses and undermines the potential for labor organizing, reducing the ability of workers to advocate for themselves in the face of exploitation.

Forced labor risk are even higher in countries where basic liberties are actively suppressed by state regimes. There is notable risk in countries that protect workers’ rights for their own citizens, but fail to extend protections to foreign migrants, or undocumented foreign migrants, particularly when such migrants make up a significant proportion of the low-wage workforce.


A high level of corruption is also a risk factor. General disregard for the rule of law and lack of adherence to laws by government officials opens the door to forced labor in many ways. Officials may accept bribes to look the other way when faced with practices associated with forced labor, such as the retention of migrant workers’ passports by employers, compulsory payment of “runaway insurance” fees by workers, or illegally high deductions from workers’ wages. Recruitment agents may also bribe government officials in order to gain access to work permits or factory placements, passing along the cost of kick-back “commissions” to workers who are already being charged high recruitment fees, in this way contributing to vulnerability to debt bondage. In some cases, government officials may themselves own recruitment agencies or have a vested interest in them through familial or other ties.

Crime & Violence

Workers in countries with a high level of crime and violence are also at higher risk of human trafficking, including forced labor. In particular, the presence of organized crime is often directly related, as crime rings trafficking in guns, drugs, or other illicit goods may also deal in human beings and facilitate delivery of workers to factories, farms, brothels, mines, or other sites of production.

State Persecution

Countries in which some categories of workers – stateless individuals or undocumented migrants, for example – are actively persecuted by the state are also at risk of forced labor, since fear of government surveillance, detention, or deportation can act as a significant constraint on workers’ freedom of movement and of association, and consequently, on their ability to resist or advocate for themselves in the face of illegal labor exploitation.


Supply chains that rely on goods or services provided in countries experiencing political conflict or instability may be at risk due to a general destabilization of society and diminution in the rule of law.  In conflict zones, there may be areas of a country outside of government control, leading to an increased risk of forced labor in these regions. In some cases, organized crime syndicates or armed groups may rely on human trafficking as a means of financing the conflict or intimidating certain populations.


Socioeconomic Risk Factors in the Country of Production

Economic Development

The implications of overall economic development for risk of human trafficking, including forced labor, in a country vary. In some cases, relatively high GDP per capita and education levels may be associated with risk due to the unwillingness of a prosperous and skilled local workforce to do low-paid, undesirable jobs. In these contexts, large number of migrants vulnerable to exploitation are typically relied upon to do such work. Conversely, forced labor risk may correlate with widespread poverty and low levels of social protection. Relative degrees of poverty between countries also play a role; for example, when workers from a poor country decide to migrate to a somewhat less poor neighboring country in search of regional economic opportunities.

Gender Inequality

Supply chains that source goods or services from countries with a high degree of gender inequality are at risk of discrimination and harassment in the workplace and the intimidated of a portion of the workforce leaving them unable to advocate for themselves in the face of exploitation. Underpaid women are disproportionally vulnerable to recruitment debt and multiple dependency on their employers. An ILO study of the economics of labor trafficking found that female-headed households are generally at greater risk of forced labor than male-headed ones, and that forced labor is more frequent in the unskilled occupations and informal sectors in which female workers often concentrate in gender-unequal societies. Learn more about Gender Inequality.

Special Export Zones

Source countries that have created economic zones designed to cater to export-oriented manufacturers may present a heightened forced labor risk, given that zones generally have lowered labor standards or relaxed regulations in order to attract foreign investment. Curbs on freedom of association, limits on hours, and other protections are common.

Legal Framework

Risk Factors Related to the Legal Framework of the Country of Production

Immigration Policies

Countries with immigration policy frameworks that restrict the employment options or movements of migrant workers pose a risk for forced labor in the supply chains that source from them. Policies that tie guestworkers’ visas to particular employers, for example, may prevent workers from leaving exploitative or abusive employment situations for fear of losing their legal immigration status. Immigration policies that restrict settlement or movement by migrants similarly increase the vulnerability of migrant workers to multiple dependencies on their employers, and constrain their ability to terminate their employment if they wish.

Bilateral Agreements

If there is no robust bilateral agreement between the migrant-sending and receiving countries, there is a risk that the migrants’ home country will not be able to enforce limits on recruitment fees or other trafficking indicators. The lack of a bilateral regulatory framework for migration may also enable unethical recruiters and employers in the receiving country to exploit workers illegally; for example, by emboldening the employers or recruiters to retain migrants’ passports, or to compel workers to work overtime. Even when bilateral agreements do exist, if they are not created in a transparent and consultative way, they may not adequately reflect concrete worker rights issues, and therefore may not effectively meet their objective of protecting workers.

ILO Conventions

Countries that have not ratified key International Labor Organization conventions prohibiting forced labor, and guaranteeing the rights of workers and migrants, can present greater risk. While not in itself causal, the lack of governmental commitment suggested by failure to sign on to such conventions is likely reflected in other structural vulnerabilities to forced labor at the national level, as well as of a lack of political will to combat such exploitation. In addition, the review mechanisms associated with these conventions are often effective tools to support grassroots advocacy for government accountability; they are not accessible to civil society organizations in countries that are not parties to them.


Environmental Factors in the Country of Production

Natural Disaster

Countries in which natural disasters have recently taken place may be at risk of forced labor, due to the need for rapid staffing of low-skilled positions for cleanup and construction. In the immediate aftermath of an emergency, normal procedures meant to check the potential for forced labor may be temporarily suspended, as government agencies and private contractors scramble to meet immediate needs. Such contexts represent opportunities for unethical recruitment and employment terms to flourish.

Use RST's interactive map to identify forced labor risks globally, by sector, commodity, and country.