Modern slavery risks have risen in Bangladesh, China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia in recent years, with all five countries sinking to their lowest positions since 2017, according to political risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft’s Modern Slavery Index. 

The index measures the risk to businesses of association with slavery and forced labour in their supply chains. Bangladesh was found to be the 18th riskiest country, China 20th, India 25th, Vietnam 35th and Indonesia 44th. 

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According to Verisk Maplecroft, the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are partly to blame for an increase in labour violations, as millions have lost their jobs and thousands of factories remain closed. 

“As more workers are pushed into the informal economy in countries where labour protections are already lacking, modern slavery risks will increase,” the report said, adding that “many laid-off workers are left with little choice but to turn to more exploitative forms of work to stay afloat.”

“With more than 65% of Asia’s workforce employed in the informal economy with little or no access to labour protections, they will be increasingly exposed to the risk of forced labour,” it added. 

Less enforcement, more violations

The index points to a decline in the enforcement of labour laws as the reason for the worsening performance of Asian manufacturing hubs, as well as an increase in the frequency and severity of labour abuses.

India and Bangladesh have dropped into the index’s “extreme risk” category for the first time, with weaker enforcement of labour laws blamed for the decrease.  

Although still in the “high” rather than “extreme” risk category, Vietnam has recorded the greatest increase in labour violations in recent years, while Cambodia has fallen by 48 places since 2017 as a result of weaker enforcement and more violations.

Sofia Nazalya, a human rights analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, also points to the travel disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as increasing the difficulty of enforcing labour standards.

“Measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19 have left the ability of companies to carry out audits to ensure ethical working practices in their supply chains in disarray,” she said, noting that this increases the risk of forced labour in their supply chains. 

As companies work to reduce the supply chain risks highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic, including by seeking suppliers in Asian manufacturing hubs outside China, “the heightened risks of modern slavery will linger”.  

The Asia-Pacific region has attracted 27.6% of the world's total number of foreign greenfield manufacturing projects since 2015, according to greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets.