The Importance of Collaborative Action to Address the Modern Slavery-Environmental Degradation-Climate Change Nexus

2 September 2021
Research Innovation

Bethany Jackson  | Research Associate & Fellow in Antislavery Social-Ecological Systems Modelling, the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham

As numerous studies have now demonstrated, modern slavery is linked to environmental degradation and climate change. Some studies have highlighted the overall connection between modern slavery and climate change. Others have noted the impacts of drought on human trafficking, the links between tree loss and modern slavery and the connections between addressing modern slavery and achieving the environmental SDGs. Yet, the antislavery and environmental movements often operate in silos, which results in an inefficient use of scarce resources and hinders the ultimate effectiveness of both antislavery and environmental conservation policy.

In an effort to draw together these disparate groups, the Rights Lab, assisted by Delta 8.7 and World Wildlife Fund (WWF US) hosted a roundtable event and discussion bringing together antislavery researchers and practitioners who focus on the modern slavery-environmental degradation-climate change nexus alongside environmental conservation actors. The aim was to produce a roadmap of where stakeholders can work together toward a more holistic and effective approach to simultaneously/conjointly address modern slavery, reduce environmental degradation and mitigate climate change impacts.

Combining efforts is vital as we move toward COP26. Thus far, modern slavery as a driver of environmental and climatic change, as well as the increased risks of modern slavery as a result of environmental devastation, have not been on the climate change agenda. Nevertheless, a growing number of voices are raising this nexus as an issue that should be included on the international climate agenda. This comes alongside the push for greater integration between policies geared towards addressing labour exploitation and environment degradation within mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation.


The roadmap recommendations (Figure 1) highlight changes that should be implemented by researchers and practitioners, policymakers, as well as businesses and those wishing to engage in supply chain action. 

Figure 1: Summary of the key integration and collaboration points between the antislavery and environmental community in order to address the co-occurring issues related to the modern slavery-environmental degradation-climate change nexus. Note there are a number of concerns and considerations that need to be understood and accounted for in order to limit the potential of negative outcomes occurring.

When working toward collaboratively addressing the modern slavery-environmental degradation-climate change nexus, it is vital that antislavery and environmental stakeholders work towards achieving the following common goals:

  1. Improve data availability, increase understanding of data variability and limitations and generate opportunities for data sharing and integration;
  2. Generate policy change based on research findings to support enforcement of laws that equally protect the environment and those subject to modern slavery;
  3. Use the momentum gained from improving data and changing policy to encourage action along supply chains, i.e. engaging businesses in due diligence, transparency and monitoring of social-ecological issues along their supply chains.

Only by working on all phases of the roadmap can effective action be taken to address the nexus. Data is critical for engaging with policymakers at COP26 and in other capacities to ensure that the climate crisis does not overshadow the other elements of the nexus, namely modern slavery — which not only overlaps with the incidence of environmental catastrophes but can also be another area of focus and action to mitigate climate change.

Report prepared by Bethany Jackson, Vicky Brotherton, Nicole Tichenor Blackstone and Jessica L. Decker Sparks

Community Engagement

In their efforts to address the nexus, the antislavery and environmental movements must not only engage with each other but also with local communities and experts. The views of workers, environmental defenders and survivors of modern slavery should be incorporated into the movement, and they should be centred as leaders of the movement.

In order to achieve this ultimate goal, these previously disparate movements must establish a common ground. This will be particularly important when working to establish data sharing protocols and effective monitoring systems as the range of information available to environmental organizations significantly outweighs the data available on modern slavery. The work undertaken to develop tools, training opportunities and interventions must center workers voices and translate data into meaningful action. Furthermore, the issues given priority must be those deemed most important by the individuals directly affected by modern slavery, environmental degradation and climate change.

Legislative Change

Policy change is necessary in order to equally tackle all elements of the nexus as addressing elements of the nexus in silos from one another risks mitigating one (i.e. environmental degradation) while exacerbating another (for example, modern slavery).  This requires coordinated efforts to include penalties and liability for social and environmental impacts within planned legislative efforts.

Due diligence moving forward should be strengthened beyond the minimal compliance for businesses contained in legislation such as the UK Modern Slavery Act’s Section 54. Instead, legislation should contain provisions for both social and ecological impacts. For example, the EU’s proposed mandatory Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence (mHREDD) framework aims to impose penalties for companies based in — and operating within — the EU that fail to take action when cases of modern slavery and/or environmental damage occur along their supply chains. Calls for such changes have been made by people working in the antislavery sector, as well as those working on a variety of environmental causes. To be even more effective and robust, legislative development should be grounded in evidence collected by experts working on the nexus, and led by individuals that have first-hand experience of modern slavery, environmental degradation and/or the effects of climate change.

Further, the development and finance communities need to be more actively engaged in the work to eliminate social and ecological damage. Businesses and governmental bodies rely on access to both official development assistance and private sector funding to support antislavery interventions and conservation efforts. Thus, it is crucial to include compliance with legislation pertaining to modern slavery and environmental impacts more broadly (such as the mHREDD) as a component of funding eligibility.

Broaden Sectoral Focus

Relatedly, cooperation between antislavery and environmental organizations should expand beyond the focus on and over-investigation of “hotspots” of modern slavery and environmental degradation. By continuing to over-focus on specific sectors, companies and geographies, the broader impacts of the nexus might not be captured and therefore addressed.

For example, the antislavery and environmental community have both dedicated significant attention to the Thai fishing sector. This blinkered approach — which is unlikely to change unless the whole industry from researchers to funders takes a more holistic approach to addressing the nexus — has obscured the issues that may be occurring in other communities and sectors. For example, indigenous communities who may experience implication of modern slavery risk associated with access to land as noted in Brazil and other areas of South America; and the risk of debt bondage faced my migrant communities in response to climate change impacts such as in Cambodia. 

Expanding these efforts to include hitherto underexamined sectors will also enhance the reach and effectiveness of policies such as mHREDD, which have thus far primarily focused on identified “hotspots”. This refocusing will also broaden the pressure placed on businesses, and could lead to increased supply chain monitoring and transparency.

Holistic Sustainable Development

Overall, the continued threat of climate change and other natural and anthropogenic disasters, including the risk of global pandemics such as COVID-19, are likely to worsen unless action is taken to address social-ecological issues conjointly. This includes the modern slavery-environmental degradation-climate change nexus.

In order to address the nexus and achieve the targets outlined in the SDGs by 2030, a collaborative approach between the antislavery and environmental movement is necessary. Data collection, policy and legislation, and business activity should be better coordinated. It is also paramount that our actions center the rights and voices of workers and communities — including survivors of modern slavery — to end modern slavery, protect the planet and mitigate against the impacts of climate change.

This article has been prepared by Bethany Jackson as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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