More people living in modern slavery than previously thought, researchers find

The accommodation was being used to house old paints and waste materials, which were stored alongside workers’ bedrooms and the kitchen, October 2012, Qatar. (Credit: AP)

There are more than 45 million people trapped in modern slavery around the world, an increase of 28 percent from previous estimates, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index. Researchers found the problem in all 167 countries it studied.

The problem is heavily concentrated in the Asia-Pacific, where two-thirds of all people are trapped in slavery. India accounts for an overwhelmingly large share with more than 18 million people living in modern slavery. China is second with 3.39 million, followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. But it is North Korea where protections are the worst and the highest percentage of citizens are trapped in modern slavery.

The index serves as an advocacy tool. While the increase in the number of people living in modern slavery is what grabs attention, the index puts pressure on countries for not taking enough action to end the problem entirely. North Korea is joined by Iran, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Hong Kong and China as the countries doing the least.

“We call on governments of the top 10 economies of the world to enact laws, at least as strong as the U.K. Modern Slavery Act 2015, with a budget and capability to ensure organizations 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,” said Andrew Forrest, founder of Walk Free Foundation, the group behind the index, in a statement. “I believe in the critical role of leaders in government, business and civil society. Through our responsible use of power, strength of conviction, determination and collective will, we all can lead the world to end slavery.”

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Forrest put additional pressure on the private sector. The Australian billionaire admitted that his own company Fortescue Metals Group was guilty of using people trapped in slavery at various points along its supply change. He said that other business people would not delve into their own activities for fear of discovering the very same problem – they’d rather not know.

The real challenge is properly identifying and rooting out modern slavery. As opposed to the straight-forward transaction-based form of slavery that is now mostly gone, the modern form involves using debt, power, force and other means to exploit people. Migrant workers in Qatar are unable to change jobs or even leave the country without permission from their employers. Domestic workers around the world have wages withheld to maintain control.

With no agreed upon definition for modern slavery, it is incredibly hard to quantify and address the problem. According to the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, 21 million people experience forced labor. The figure does not consider many of the forms of modern slavery included in the new index.

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The 2016 index relied on interviews conducted by Gallup polls of 42,000 people in 25 countries. Estimates were made using the information and available data, leading to the significant increase as compared to the index from two years ago. Regardless of the numbers, there is a global problem where no country is immune. The Netherlands, U.S., U.K., Sweden and Australia were commended for taking the most action against modern slavery, according to the index.

At the heart of the issue is poverty. An assessment of the factors that make people most vulnerable to modern slavery shows that the very same challenges experienced by the world’s poor are what make people at greater risk of becoming modern slaves. The most vulnerable people are from the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Afghanistan. The list goes on with countries experiencing conflict and displacement.

Wealth is not the only factor. Many countries with smaller economies did more to reduce modern slavery than some wealthier countries. This is as much an issue of political will as it is one of poverty.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.