FeaturedInternationalVolume 14 Issue # 02

The curse thrives in the modern world

Slavery was outlawed many years ago, but millions of people around the world are still living as slaves in various forms. A global survey released recently says that over 50 million people are living as slaves globally with the largest number in India. Unlike historical definitions of slavery in which people were held as legal property, a practice that has been universally banned, modern slavery is generally defined as human trafficking, forced labour, bondage from indebtedness, forced or servile marriage or commercial sexual exploitation.

The report has revised its earlier estimate of people born into servitude, trafficked for sex work, or trapped in debt bondage or forced labour to over 50 million from 36 million in 2014. According to the survey, the situation is getting worse with global displacement and migration increasing vulnerability to all forms of slavery.

Incidences of slavery were found in all 167 countries surveyed, with India having an estimated 18.4 million slaves among its 1.3 billion population, topping the list. North Korea ranked as worst in terms of concentration with one in every 20 people – or 4.4 percent of its 25 million population – in slavery and state-sanctioned forced labour. Data shows that more than half the population of modern slaves are in five countries — India, with 18.35 million, China 3.39 million, Pakistan 2.13 million, Bangladesh 1.53 million, and Uzbekistan 1.23 million.

After North Korea, the next highest prevalence of slavery is found in Uzbekistan – 3.97 percent, followed by Cambodia 1.65 percent, India 1.4 percent, and Qatar 1.36 percent. The countries with the lowest per capita rates of modern slavery — defined as 0.02 percent of the population or less, are: Luxembourg, New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Belgium, Australia, Canada, Spain, Britain, France, Germany and the United States.

The global slavery report also keeps a record of government actions and responses to modern slavery. Of the 161 countries surveyed, 124 countries have criminalised human trafficking in line with the UN Trafficking Protocol and 96 have developed national action plans to coordinate government response. The governments leading the charge against modern slavery are The Netherlands, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, Portugal, Croatia, Spain, Belgium and Norway.

In recent years, significant progress has been made by many governments to root out the curse.  The UK government introduced the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and has appointed an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. Ex-president Barack Obama closed a loophole in US law to ban the importation of goods made with forced or child labour. Countries such as Croatia, Montenegro, Brazil, Macedonia, the Philippines, Georgia, Moldova, Albania and Jamaica are taking positive steps to end various forms of modern-day slavery.

According to the report, India has more people enslaved than any other country but lately it has made some progress in introducing measures to tackle the problem. It has criminalised trafficking, slavery, forced labour, child prostitution and forced marriage. The Indian government is currently tightening legislation against human trafficking, with tougher punishment for repeat offenders.

The report has placed Pakistan among the top five countries with the highest rates of enslaved people. Slavery in Pakistan is mostly in the form of debt bondage. The provinces of Punjab and Sindh are said to be hotbeds of bonded labour, which is mainly found in the brick making, agriculture, and carpet weaving industries. Recently it was estimated that the brick kiln industry employs around 4.5 million people across the country. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a recent report said that in Sindh and Punjab some bonded labourers in brick kilns are “either kept in captivity by armed guards or their family members become virtual hostages.” The family members, including young children, are chained to the cycle as the debt is transferred to them in the case an adult worker dies or is disabled. Those who manage to escape are often hunted and forced to return and pay off the debt. This cycle is reinforced by contemporary agricultural policies which give landlords privileged access to land, resources, and credit. The Human Rights Watch says that the papers the illiterate haaris sign with the landlords are often manipulated in such a way that the poor peasants remain in debt for the whole of their lives.

The system of bonded labour should have ended in Pakistan after the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was passed in 1992. But the landlords in Sindh and Punjab are still free to maltreat the slave workers working on their farms or in brick kilns. Although more than two decades have elapsed since the passage of the anti-bonded labour law, the shadows of this abhorrent custom continue to blight the lives of millions of Pakistanis. The situation has little changed  since 2010, when the government devolved most legislative and enforcement powers to the provinces though a constitutional amendment, including responsibility for labour, child protection, and women’s protection.  Brick kilns, for example, are now under the responsibility of provincial departments of labour, and half of the approximately 10,500 brick kilns in Punjab remain unregistered.  Experts say that the government needs to act to tackle the problem, including by regulating the informal industries and enforcing anti-slavery laws such as the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act of 1992.


There is an urgent need to devise an integrated national strategy with accompanying resources to implement the anti-slavery laws. Some important steps in this regard should include more effective registration and regulation of brick kilns and other informal sector workplaces, ensuring that all workers are paid the minimum wage. There is also a need to strengthen relevant government institutions such as the police, the FIA, social security, labour and human resource departments and the judiciary to prevent slavery and prosecute those involved in the crime. Hopefully, the report should pressure politicians to address this neglected issue. What we need is for politicians to not just pay lip-service to combat slavery, but to challenge the status quo to empower labourers.