• Simon Stiggear, Senior Manager |
  • Michael Pollitt, Manager |

Fifty million people around the world are living in modern slavery, according to new estimates.

This figure, equivalent to nearly one out of every 150 people globally, combines 28 million victims of forced labour and 22 million victims of forced marriage.

The full extent of the findings is set out in a new report, published jointly by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and Walk Free an international human rights group.

The report marks the first time these organisations have updated their figures since previous modern slavery estimates were issued in 2017. The intervening years have seen a worrying increase in the prevalence of modern slavery, with the number of victims up by 25 per cent on previous estimates.  

For this, the organisations involved in the research blame a period of ‘unprecedented disruption’ caused by ‘compounding crises’ such as the pandemic, armed conflicts, and climate change. 

What the data tell us

As part of their methodology, ‘forced labour’ was defined in accordance with the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention, i.e. ‘work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of a penalty and for which that person has not offered himself voluntarily.

In assessing the prevalence of forced labour, the organisations relied principally on nationally representative household surveys and an anonymised dataset provided by the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative, a data hub drawing together intelligence from counter-trafficking organisations.

The findings are sobering. Almost one in eight estimated forced labour victims is a child. Forced labour also appears to be unaffected by the dividing lines between developed and developing nations, with more than half of all victims being identified in upper-middle or high-income countries. 

What this means for the private sector

Although it also considered state-imposed forced labour, such as prison labour and abuse of conscription, the research found that the majority of forced labour occurs in the private sector.

Eighty-six per cent of forced labour cases were estimated to be caused by private actors, with the highest prevalence in industries such as service, manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and domestic work. Indeed, a five-year increase of 2.7 million in the number of forced labour victims globally is described by the report as ‘driven entirely by forced labour in the private economy’.

The organisations behind the research argue that ‘a whole-of-society approach is needed’ to reverse these worrying trends, including ‘social partners, businesses and investors’. However, of the report’s 14 recommendations on forced labour, relatively few appear to be targeted towards the private sector directly. Its recommendations focus mainly on changes required at the governmental level.  

Nevertheless, there are three points raised at this governmental level which private actors would do well to understand:

  1. Deeper due diligence
    According to the research, due diligence laws are critical. However, they have until now been overly limited to suppliers and partners operating at the upper tiers of the supply chain.

    The result, the report argues, has been that these laws have had limited impact on ad­vancing due diligence among entities further down the supply chain, i.e. in the ‘informal economy’ where modern slavery risks are greater.

  2. Institutional requirements
    The research also calls for states and financial institutions to ‘make greater use of their economic power’ to ensure that businesses respect human rights in their operations and supply chains.

    In practice, the report argues that governments should make human rights due diligence part of their eligibility criteria for officially supported export credits and direct lending. It also recommends that development financing institutions should include ‘human rights conditionality’ in their loan agreements with private businesses.

  3. Forthcoming guidance  
    Among the lessons we have learned from the ‘first wave’ of modern slavery legislation, the research claims, is ‘the importance of clarity in the obligations and expectations placed on businesses’.   

    Perhaps referring to the well-documented challenges that private sector organisations have faced in complying with their reporting obligations under the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015, the report calls for governments to reach out actively to their private sector counterparts, to explain their human rights and modern slavery laws and provide ‘compliance guidance’.

What happens next

With the UK and Australian legislation already set to be updated, these figures and recommendations have come at a time when major legislators are looking back at their ‘first wave’ modern slavery laws with a red pen in their hand.  

They will provide these legislators with some important issues to consider, as well as renewed public pressure on the issue of modern slavery as the statistics make their way through mainstream media. 

Looking beyond the numbers towards their likely impact on our legislative landscape, therefore, we could see some significant developments over the coming years.

If the authors of the world’s largest study on modern slavery are given any credence on how we should be tackling the issue, these developments could feasibly include: requirements for companies to look further down their supply chain when conducting human rights due diligence; the incorporation of human rights performance criteria among the conditions for government financing; and, perhaps necessarily, clearer guidance on how these measures will be implemented.

Through the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, the global community has committed to ending modern slavery universally by 2030. This latest report has brought disconcerting news on the scale of the problem we face in meeting this target. However, it also provides the private sector with some early indications of how it can be part of the solution.  

For information on how we are helping our clients to meet their obligations under international modern slavery laws, please contact Michael Pollitt or Simon Stiggear