Nearly 46 million people are subjected to some form of modern slavery, about 28% more than previously thought, according to a landmark study published this week by Australia’s Walk Free Foundation.
A global survey of modern-day slavery has revealed, through improved data collection and research methods, that about 45.8 million people in 167 countries are victims - 10 million more than calculated in 2014.
That number is more than double the International Labour Organisation’s estimate of 21 million people trapped in modern slavery. The UN has deemed it to be the third most profitable criminal business in the world, after narcotics and arms trafficking.
Unlike slaves in the pre-modern era, who were seen as legal property, modern-day slaves are stuck in employment situations where they cannot leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception. They may be held in debt bondage, against their will as domestic servants, be forced into marriage or prostitution, or work under state-sanctioned forced labour programmes.
Why does modern slavery persist?
The majority of the victims are to be found in the Asia-Pacific region, according to The Global Slavery Index, published on Tuesday by the Walk Free Foundation, an anti-slavery initiative founded in 2012 by Australian mining magnate and philanthropist Andrew Forrest.
The study was compiled from 42,000 interviews conducted by pollster Gallup in 167 countries in 53 languages to determine the prevalence of slavery and government responses.
“Vulnerability to modern slavery is affected by a complex interaction of factors related to the presence or absence of protection and respect for rights, physical safety and security; access to the necessities of life such as food, water and health care; and patterns of migration, displacement and conflict,” the study noted.
With 18.35 million people in bondage, India has the highest incidence of outright slavery, followed by China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. Together, the five countries are home to 26.6 million slaves, or nearly 58% of the global slave population.
As proportion of national population, North Korea, Uzbekistan and Cambodia have the highest slave populations.
On the other hand, the Philippines is one of the world’s top 10 countries taking steps in response to modern slavery, when measured as a proportion of national wealth.
The Global Slavery Index, the first published since the 2014, found that 124 of the assessed countries have criminalised human trafficking in line with the UN Trafficking Protocol, while 96 others have developed national action plans to coordinate government response.
While India has more people enslaved than any other country, it has made significant progress in introducing measures to tackle the problem, the study noted. 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. It will also offer victims protection and recovery support.
The index praised 10 Western nations for “leading the charge against modern slavery”. Notable initiatives included the UK’s enactment of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and its appointment of an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland. US President Barack Obama has closed a loophole in US law to ban the importation of goods made with forced or child labour.
Walk Free Foundation chairman Mr. Forrest is using the release of the 2016 Global Slavery Index to lobby the leaders of the world's largest economies to enact legislation on supply chain transparency for all goods and services imported or sold in their countries.
“We call on governments of the top 10 economies of the world to enact laws, at least as strong as the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015, with a budget and capability to ensure organisations are held to account for modern slavery in their supply chains, and to empower independent oversight. Leaders of the world’s major economies must bring the power of business to this issue, by requiring a focus on supply chain transparency,” Mr. Forrest said.
He also emphasised the key role that business needs to play in eradicating slavery: “Businesses that don’t actively look for forced labour within their supply chains are standing on a burning platform. Business leaders who refuse to look into the realities of their own supply chains are misguided and irresponsible.”