Slavery is not a thing of the past. A report released Tuesday by the U.N.-affiliated International Labor Office (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation estimates that there were 40.3 million people in some form of modern slavery around the world on any given day last year.
But by its very nature, the accuracy of that figure is hard to gauge. Slavery tends to be a hidden, illegal practice — one in which the victim's ability to speak out is limited. The authors of the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery study admit there are gaps in the available information: Although extensive United Nations data has been used in the study, some countries and sub-national regions are missing.
“It's difficult or even impossible to do research in areas of high conflict,” said Fiona David, Walk Free Foundation's executive director of global research, pointing to areas such as Syria or northern Nigeria that had to be excluded from the study. Because of this, David said, the estimate of 40.3 million is probably conservative.
Walk Free hopes that disconcerting detail could prompt global action. “This is truly historic,” said Andrew Forrest, an Australian mining magnate and founder of the anti-slavery nonprofit organization. “We know we're dealing with a major problem.”
The Global Estimates of Modern Slavery study found that slavery occurs in every region — and probably every country — of the world. In terms of sheer numbers, the majority of modern slaves probably live in Asia and the Pacific region. Meanwhile, slavery as a practice is thought to be most prevalent in Africa. The report cautions, however, that with more accurate data, these rankings could well change.
Notably, the study does not break down its figures country by country, like the separate Global Slavery Index published annually since 2013 by Walk Free. Some experts, such as prominent human trafficking scholar Anne Gallagher, have criticized the methodology of Walk Free's indexes, while noting that the aim of providing an accurate estimate of modern slavery is a noble one.
The ILO, a U.N. agency that deals with labor standards, has also put out its own figures in the past that tended to be lower than Walk Free's estimates — further confusing the matter.
Researchers hope to compel world leaders to take the issue more seriously by using a new methodology that incorporates a large amount of new data from sources such as the International Organization for Migration and that combines the work of Walk Free and the ILO. The report is being released to coincide with the U.N. General Assembly, where progress made towards Sustainable Development Goals — a series of agreements made among countries to improve the world by 2030 — will be discussed. (Modern slavery is specifically mentioned in these goals.)
“The message the ILO is sending [ …] is very clear: the world won’t be in a position to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals unless we dramatically increase our efforts to fight these scourges,” Guy Ryder, the ILO director general, said in a statement. "These new global estimates can help shape and develop interventions to prevent both forced labor and child labor.”
That may be true. The Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report not only offers details of where enslaved people live, but also some potentially surprising details on how they live. Most modern slaves tend not to be men in chains like our imagination might suggest, the report finds.
In fact, most are not men at all. Women and girls account for an estimated 28.7 million of enslaved people, about 71 percent of the total. Meanwhile, 1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are thought to be below the age of 18.
There was also widespread variation in the type of slavery found. An estimated 24.9 million people were victims of forced labor in 2016, the report found. Most of these people (64 percent) were in forced labor exploitation in the private economy, most likely to be domestic workers, construction workers or those in manufacturing. A further 19 percent were in forced sexual exploitation while 17 percent were in state-imposed forced labor.
Separate to this concept of forced labor is another definition of slavery: forced marriage, which makes up 38 percent, or 15.4 million, of the total number. Notably, women and girls make up 88 percent of forced marriages, as well as 99 percent of sexual exploitation.
The report found that people end up in these situations for a variety of reasons. When it comes to forced labor, the most common form of coercion was withheld wages, with debt bondage a widespread tactic. Threats of violence were also common, as were actual acts of physical violence. Women were also disproportionately likely to face sexual violence as a coercion tactic. Forced marriages often involve children who are not able to give consent; sometimes women are forced to marry to cancel a debt or settle a family dispute. The marriage may be part of a tradition, although often forced marriages are used by armed groups during conflict.
There probably is more work needed to make these kind of macro-level estimates more accurate, David acknowledged. The ILO's campaign against child labor began decades ago, she said, and it is only because of initial estimates made all that time ago that we can see whether policies are having an effect. “We're really at very early days at equivalent with modern slavery,” David said.
But Forrest said that he hoped now that Walk Free and the ILO have agreed upon a figure, more process could be made to eradicate modern slavery. “Modern slavery absolutely exists,” he said. “And unlike natural phenomena — like cancer or HIV or Ebola — this is something that we as people control.”
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