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40 million modern slaves, UN General Assembly told

Former Pakistani child labourers leave a school in Lahore, where they benefit from government efforts to pull them out of bonded labour. Campaigners estimate more than two million Pakistanies are trapped in cycles of debt bondage, a form of modern slavery.
Former Pakistani child labourers leave a school in Lahore, where they benefit from government efforts to pull them out of bonded labour. Campaigners estimate more than two million Pakistanies are trapped in cycles of debt bondage, a form of modern slavery. AFP/Arif Ali

Some 40.3 million people around the world are trapped in conditions of slavery, according to a report released on Tuesday and presented to the UN General Assembly. Campaigners say the report gives the best-ever account of modern slavery and is a stepping stone to helping governments stop it.

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Of the 40.3 million people around the world trapped in conditions of modern slavery, an estimated 24.9 million are forced into working in the sex trade, on industrial or agricultural sites or as domestic workers, according to the report, Global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labour and forced marriage.

Another 15.4 million people are married against their will, it says.

Women and girls account for three of every four modern slaves, or about 29 million people, while one in four slaves is a child.

Exploitation by force

“Modern slavery is a term we use to cover a whole range of complex legal concepts,” says Fiona David, executive director of global research at the Walk Free Foundation, one of the main partners in authoring the report.

“Some people refer to human trafficking or forced labour, while others use the terms debt bondage and, of course, slavery itself,” David explains. “Really what [the term] modern slavery does is highlight the common features across these crimes, which is exploitation of another person through some sort of force, fraud, coercion or threat.”

The report found practices of modern slavery are most prevalent in Africa, followed by Asia and the Pacific regions, as well as in Europe.

“There are traditional forms of debt bondage reported for years in India, Nepal and Pakistan, where people, although they think their work was enough to repay a debt, they are told no, they have to stay or come back the next year,” says Michaëlle de Cock, lead author of the report with the International Labour Organization (ILO).

“We also have new forms where people are trapped because of labour migration, from Asia to the Middle East, or from Latin America to other countries, or within Europe, where abusive labour agents take fees that they should not and then people cannot escape.”

Best-ever data on modern slavery

While the term slavery is used to describe a host of illegal practices, their very range makes the topic difficult to research, let alone to combat.

“There is no legal definition of modern slavery,” notes de Cock, explaining the strategy of presenting the findings at the UN, which made the elimination of such practices part of the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015.

“We found it quite useful to bring together all stakeholders who are fighting all these violations of human rights,” de Cock says in reference to the partnership between the Walk Free Foundation and the ILO in consultation with a range of campaign groups and the International Organisation for Migration.

As such, anti-slavery advocates say the novelty of the report is in the methodology and convergence of.

“What we’re talking about with the new global estimates of modern slavery is the best-ever data set assembled on how prevalent this crime is around the world,” says David.

“We’re finally reaching the point of having a reliable benchmark so that policymakers, corporations and the people trying to understand how best to intervene,” says Kevin Bales, professor of contemporary slavery and part of the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham.

“Five and 10 years ago, we were saying that we won’t know whether we’re winning or losing until we finally get a metric by which we can measure our progress,” Bales explains.

“With a metric, we can begin to estimate that if we know it costs so much to get people out of slavery, we can begin to talk about what the total cost might be in a certain country, and what kinds of actions might be most appropriate.”

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