Slavery is supposed to have been abolished centuries ago, but the abhorrent practice is still in vogue in many parts of the world. According to recent media reports, slaves are openly bought and sold in Libya today. ISIS fighters in Iraq use Yezdi women as slaves. Bonded labour in India, Pakistan and other countries is a modern form of slavery.
As reported in the recent Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, published by the International Labour Organization and the Walk Free Foundation, an estimated 40.3 million people are living in modern slavery. In other words, more than 40 million people – about 70 percent of whom are women and girls – are being forced to work against their will under threat or who are living in a forced marriage.
An important finding of the 2018 Global Slavery Index highlights the connection between modern slavery and two major external drivers – highly repressive regimes, in which populations are put to work to prop up the government, and conflict situations which result in the breakdown of the rule of law, social structures and existing systems of protection.
The country with the highest estimated prevalence of slavery is North Korea. In North Korea, one in 10 people is in modern slavery with the clear majority forced to work by the state. As a UN Commission of Inquiry has observed, violations of human rights in North Korea are not mere excesses of the state, they are an essential component of the political system. This is reflected in the research on North Korea undertaken through interviews with defectors for the Global Slavery Index. North Korea is followed closely by Eritrea, a repressive regime that abuses its conscription system to hold its citizens in forced labour for decades.
The 10 countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery globally, along with North Korea and Eritrea, are Burundi, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Mauritania, South Sudan and Cambodia. Most of these countries are marked by conflict, with breakdowns in the rule of law, displacement and a lack of physical security (Eritrea, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, South Sudan).
One of the most important findings of the 2018 Global Slavery Index is that the prevalence of modern slavery in high-GDP countries is higher than what was previously understood. Through collaboration, the number of data sources which inform the index has increased. This has allowed the index to more consistently measure prevalence in countries where exploitation has taken place. More surveys in sending countries has resulted in more data about receiving countries, most of which are highly developed.
Following these changes, an interesting pattern emerges: the prevalence estimates for the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and several other European nations are higher than what was previously understood. Given these are also the countries taking the most action to respond to modern slavery, this does not mean these initiatives are in vain. It does, however, underscore that even in countries with seemingly strong laws and systems, there are critical gaps in protections for groups, such as irregular migrants, the homeless, workers in the shadow and certain minorities.
The realities of global trade and commerce make it inevitable that the products and proceeds of modern slavery will cross borders. Accordingly, for the first time the issue of modern slavery is examined not only from the perspective of where the crime is perpetrated but also where the products of the crime are sold and consumed, with a specific focus on the G20 countries. The resulting analysis presents a stark contrast of risk and responsibility, with G20 countries importing risk on a scale not matched by their responses. In other words, citizens of most G20 countries enjoy relatively low levels of vulnerability to the crime of modern slavery within their borders. Nonetheless, businesses and governments in G20 countries are importing products that are at risk of modern slavery on a significant scale.
While much more needs to be done to prevent and respond to modern slavery, the Government Response Index suggests that national legal, policy, and programmatic responses to modern slavery are improving, with an upward trend overall in ratings for government responses. Globally, governments are taking more action to strengthen legislation and establish coordination and accountability mechanisms. Protection measures are being strengthened, with improvements in access to justice for adults and children in some countries. Moreover, high-GDP countries such as Qatar, Singapore, Kuwait, Brunei and Hong Kong are doing very little to respond despite their wealth and resources, while low-GDP countries such as Georgia, Moldova, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Mozambique are responding strongly.
Government engagement with business on modern slavery has increased dramatically since the 2016 Global Slavery Index. In 2018, 36 countries were taking steps to address forced labour in business or public supply chains, compared to only four countries in 2016. However, these steps are often to establish the bare minimum of reporting requirements; individual governments can do much more than they are doing to proactively engage with business to prevent forced labour in supply chains and in public procurement.
The research also highlights the responsibilities held by both low-GDP and high-GDP countries. All governments have committed to working together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 on eradicating modern slavery. In this regard, high-GDP countries cannot simply rely on doing more of the same – there is an urgent need to prioritise prevention, end discrimination and ensure safe migration.