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Re-defining Slavery: The Fight Against Modern-Day Chains


Anti-slavery efforts gained momentum with the 1926 League of Nations Convention on Slavery and the 1932 ILO Convention on Forced Labour. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1949, slavery and the slave trade were strictly prohibited, and the prohibition of forced labour was added with the European Convention on Human Rights adopted in 1950 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entered into force in 1976.[1]

"Slavery", a concept that has been fought against since the dawn of humanity, continues to spread in a modern form with the expansion of global production and supply chains. The report[2], published by the International Labour Organization ("ILO"), revealed that 50 million people worldwide are victims of modern-day slavery. Although many countries are making legal arrangements to combat modern-day slavery, it is crucial for global companies, which are expanding their operations day by day, to take various actions to fight against this situation, to adopt an internal human rights compliance program, and to publish a declaration of their commitments.

Although slavery is older than written history, it still exists in different forms today, despite efforts to overcome it. In its report, the ILO examines the concept of modern-day slavery under two main headings: forced labour and forced marriage. Under both headings, it is stated that a person is in a situation of exploitation that they cannot refuse or abandon due to threats, violence, coercion, deception, or abuse of power. According to the report, the share of forced labour in the private sector is 86%, while state-based forced labour represents 14%. The private sector areas where adults are most often subjected to forced labour are service, production, construction, agriculture, and domestic work. Forced labour in sectors other than commercial sexual exploitation accounts for 63% of all forced labour. Commercial sexual exploitation accounts for 23% of all forced labour. 3.3 million people in forced labour are children, and more than half of these children are used in commercial sexual exploitation. In 2021, the total number of forced marriage cases was estimated at 22 million. Forced marriage is practiced worldwide, with Arab countries having the highest number of forced marriages in proportion to their population. In forced marriages, which parents usually influence, people are subjected to emotional threats and verbal and physical abuse throughout their marriage. Modern-day slavery is most prevalent in global production and supply chains, where children and women live under precarious conditions and among migrants working in undocumented labour.

United Kingdom Modern Slavery Act

Several countries and numerous globalized companies are taking responsibility to take an ethical stance in the face of the growing momentum of modern slavery. To support this stance, the UK introduced the Modern Slavery Act (the “Act") in 2015. The Act is significant as it is the first legislation to prevent human rights violations in commercial activities. Under the Act, companies must be transparent to avoid the risks of modern-day slavery and increase competition to raise labour standards.

The Act requires companies to disclose their due diligence processes, company policies, effectiveness in meeting the requirements, and reports on training to raise awareness about modern slavery. If available, these statements must be published on the company's website, approved by the board of directors, and signed by an authorized director.

Two out of every five companies subject to the Act are not complying with their legal obligations, while the government has never used its powers against these non-compliant companies. In this sense, the Modern Slavery Act has unfortunately not been a success, as it fails to provide the necessary sanctions to ensure binding enforcement. These failures in implementation should be addressed, and the supply chain of the business should carry out human rights due diligence to address the gaps in the law, the policies on slavery and human trafficking, and the training that they should provide to their staff on this issue should be included in the scope of the Act.[3]

On June 15, 2021, the New Modern Slavery Act Amendments[4] were published. Under these amendments, companies will be required to identify and report on the issues that must be reported in relation to their field of activity. These reports may include the total number of employees and the composition of employees in terms of religion, language, race, gender, working hours, and wages earned. The board of directors will also be required to sign off on the reports when approving them, indicating the approval date. In addition, public institutions are required to publish a statement on human slavery, and penalties are introduced for commercial entities that fail to fulfill their obligations under the law's transparency provisions.

One of the policies that governments can implement to fight modern slavery, in addition to expanding the scope of existing regulations, is import bans. This includes imposing import bans on products whose production violates human and labour rights, including forced labour and child labour.

Companies with global power have a role to play in the fight against modern slavery in addition to the steps that can be taken by the public. The most critical responsibility that companies can take to support the fight against modern slavery is to adopt and maintain an ethical attitude. The best way to do this is to ensure transparency in the supply chain. It is essential to map the path through the supply process and make mandatory reporting more comprehensive and reliable. In addition, companies see compliance with the legal regulations on modern slavery as a means of competing against other companies in their sector, and this accelerates compliance processes.

Modern Slavery in Turkey

Article 18 of the Turkish Constitution prohibits forced labour and drudgery. This article aims to prevent the forced labour of individuals against their free will and the concept of drudgery, which refers to involuntary services performed by individuals for no or inadequate compensation. This provision of the Constitution is based on the principle of respect for fundamental human rights and human dignity and applies to everyone living in Turkey.

In Turkey, the Labour Law regulates working conditions and related rights and responsibilities. From a human rights perspective, bringing conditions in Turkey in line with world standards is essential. As in the case of the United Kingdom, imposing obligations on private and public institutions through new regulations will contribute to an effective policy in the fight against modern slavery.

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute's Child Labour Force Survey[5], seven hundred and twenty thousand children between the ages of 5-17 are working in Turkey. This situation shows that in Turkey, as in the rest of the world, children are illegally employed and deprived of their human rights. Turkey is a signatory party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and has made commitments to prevent child labour through ILO Conventions and therefore gives importance to the fight against child labour. Article 71 of the Labour Law No. 4857 prohibits the employment of children under the age of 15. In addition, article 72 of the same law prohibits men under the age of 18 and women of all ages from working in heavy underground and underwater work, and Article 73 prohibits the work performed at night by children and young workers under the age of 18.

Under the law, children's employment requires permission from the Ministry of National Education and the fulfillment of specific criteria. These criteria include children not being of school age, being in good health, and requiring parental consent.

However, the penalties for violations of these prohibitions do not have sufficient enforcement power. Increasing administrative fines for violations and introducing prison sentences depending on the severity of the violation is among the measures that can be taken. In this way, Turkey's policies to fight child labour can be made more effective, and children can be protected in accordance with their fundamental human rights.

Excessive working hours, which is one of the most significant reflections of the concept of modern slavery in business life, raise various problems in terms of human rights. According to a survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ("OECD") on weekly working hours, the average working week in the OECD is 37 hours. Among the 34 countries evaluated, Colombia has the highest rate, with 47.6 hours. Turkey ranks second with an average of 45.6 hours per week. The Netherlands ranks last with 29.5 hours per week, while in the United Kingdom, this rate is 36.3.[6]

The cooperation between the state and the private sector is crucial in fighting modern slavery and human rights violations in Turkey. In this context, companies should prioritize social responsibility projects and regulations that protect the rights of employees. Regulations and audits not only ensure that employees work in an environment that respects human rights but also set an example for other companies operating in the same market.

In order for new regulations and laws to be effectively implemented, state authorities need to strengthen inspection mechanisms and organize training programs for companies. This could lead to a more aware and sensitive business community in terms of fighting modern slavery and protecting human rights. In this way, Turkey's labour standards can be internationally recognized, and the goal of a more livable and fair business environment for Turkey can be achieved worldwide.

Compliance Programs Against Modern Slavery

For companies to play an effective role against modern slavery, they must adopt and implement compliance programs. In this process, senior and middle management's commitment and leadership are critical to the company's success regarding sensitivity to human rights and ethical values. Compliance programs contribute to ensuring compliance with legislation and protecting the rights of employees by prioritizing sensitivity to human rights and moral values in business processes. In this context, the actions that companies can take by making use of compliance programs are as follows:

  • Establish a company policy that respects human rights: With the support and commitment of senior and middle management, companies should establish a company policy whereby management and employees will operate in an environment that respects human rights and play an active role against modern slavery.
  • Training and awareness-raising programs: Companies should conduct regular trainings and seminars to increase the knowledge and awareness of managers and employees on human rights and anti-modern slavery issues. The participation and support of senior and middle management are important for the company to run a successful compliance program.
  • Develop internal audit and reporting mechanisms: Companies should develop internal audit and reporting mechanisms and conduct independent audits to improve working conditions and identify potential risks in advance continuously. The involvement of senior and middle management in internal audit processes and reporting ensures that processes function correctly and problems are addressed effectively.
  • Ensuring compliance with ethical values in the supply chain: To promote compliance with ethical values and legislation throughout the supply chain, companies should monitor and evaluate their collaborations with suppliers and business partners. This includes ensuring that these parties operate in a manner that respects human rights. It is important for senior and middle management to closely oversee these collaborations to maintain ethical standards.
  • Adopting the principle of transparency and accountability: Companies should take an effective stance in the fight against modern slavery by prioritizing transparency and accountability in their activities. In this context, senior and middle management should report, share with stakeholders and continuously update policies and practices that respect human rights.

With the commitment and leadership of senior and middle management, companies that adopt effective policies and practices using compliance programs against modern slavery gain significant sustainability, ESG, and reputational benefits. This improves the company's financial returns and competitiveness and supports industry leadership through employee satisfaction and engagement. Management's leadership in this regard plays a vital role in the future success of companies and contributes to creating a sustainable and ethical business world that respects human rights.


Despite various regulations throughout history, "slavery" continues to exist in modernized forms affecting different populations. Women and children are among the biggest victims of modern slavery. Since the early 20th century, states have been fighting against slavery through laws and regulations. However, this struggle has not been successful due to the narrow scope of the laws and the lack of effective enforcement of sanctions. Modern slavery can be fought by improving working conditions, preventing child labour, treating women equally to men, and protecting the rights of migrants.

The influence of corporations on public order plays an important role in the developing world, and this is also reflected in the fight against modern slavery. Therefore, the eradication of slavery requires the cooperation of states and companies. With the commitment and leadership of senior and middle management, companies that adopt compliance programs and implement effective policies can achieve significant sustainability, ESG, and reputational benefits. This will contribute to creating a business world that respects human rights and complies with ethical values and will support the fight against modern slavery.