Slavery is a crime - it's time to treat it like one Image: REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Explore and monitor how Global Governance is affecting economies, industries and global issues
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:
In the past several years, there have been some extraordinary developments in the global fight against modern day slavery. Despite this, more than 45 million people remain trapped.
In the coming year, governments, donors, civil society, corporations, and international institutions can make even more progress by embracing the following approaches.
Treat slavery like a crime
Slavery is prohibited by every nation’s laws. The fact that it flourishes nonetheless represents a failure by governments, donors, NGO’s, and international institutions to enforce those laws and make them real for the world’s more than 45 million slaves.
Unfortunately, slavery is commonly considered to be an extreme form of poverty rather than a violent crime. Slavery today is immensely profitable, and it is growing and will continue to grow for one simple reason: because traffickers and slavers face almost no risk at all of apprehension, prosecution and punishment. In the absence of criminal deterrence, this enduring human evil will haunt our present and our future, as it has our past.
The most important step towards a slave-free world is for governments, development institutions, and donors to recognize that anti-poverty strategies aimed at making the very poor less vulnerable to slavery will not, by themselves, be enough to deter the perpetrators of every act of slavery and trafficking. It is impossible to imagine that chattel slavery in America, for example, could have been prevented, much less eradicated by making black slaves less vulnerable to exploitation. It took law and law enforcement to free slaves, and that is what is required today.
The good news is that there is a growing body of evidence that reliable and professional enforcement of anti-trafficking/anti-slavery laws by local police, prosecutors and courts can as an effective deterrent. We know that traffickers and slavers are highly responsive to risk.
When police, prosecutors, courts and judges do their jobs well and apprehension and imprisonment become a tangible prospect, perpetrators get out of the slavery business. The International Justice Mission (IJM) has measured the impact in our own anti-slavery programmes in Southeast Asia, where we have seen the prevalence of minor children in the commercial sex industry plummet in just a few years once governments decided to enforce their countries’ anti-trafficking laws.
The same approach is required for forced labour slavery around the world, where there have been far fewer prosecutions and convictions.
Make Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 a reality
In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted its 15-year blueprint for global development: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.) SDG 8.7 commits member states to: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”
National governments are taking SDG 8.7 seriously. In India, for example, the Minister of Labor and Employment issued a 15-year strategy to “identify, release and rehabilitate an estimated 1.8 million bonded labourers; and to strengthen the prosecution machinery, reaching one hundred percent conviction rate for preventing creation of new bondages.”
Slavery-burdened countries need help from donor nations and international development organizations to rise to the challenge of SDG 8.7. Nourishing the capacity of local police, prosecutors and courts to enforce anti-slavery laws should be at the top of the development agenda.
Fund the End Modern Slavery Initiative
On 8 December, the US Congress passed bipartisan legislation that authorizes the United States Government to contribute $37.5 million per year for four years to a global anti-slavery initiative. The initial US government contribution is being used to build a $1.5 billion fund from government and the private sector that will channel substantial resources towards high-prevalence countries, funding initiatives that measurably reduce the crime of slavery - all through the execution of a united and coordinated global strategy.
The End Modern Slavery Initiative has the potential to be a global game-changer because it will prioritize the actual rescue of slaves and the apprehension of perpetrators and requires funded programmes to show a significant reduction in the prevalence of slavery.
The End Modern Slavery Initiative may do for slavery what the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and TB (GFATM) did for infectious disease. But realizing that dream will require significant investment by private individuals, foundations, corporations, and donor governments. The US, already the world’s largest donor in the anti-slavery cause, has begun the process. In the coming year, other donors can and should join the effort and contribute to what has the potential to be a highly strategic and effective global anti-slavery initiative.
Engage Governments in the clean supply chain conversation
Over the past several years there have been numerous, well-documented media reports about labour slavery in the supply chains of some of the world’s largest retailers. As hundreds of brands can attest, corporations bear the weight of opprobrium when trafficked labour is exposed. Textiles, chocolate, electronics, fish, metals, bricks, flowers and dozens of other industries are rife with trafficked, forced, exploited and child labour. It is safe to presume that the next distressing revelation is just around the corner.
No-one should question the responsibility of importers and retailers to do their utmost to identify and scrub their supply chains for slave-produced goods. But slavery and trafficking is a corrupt and usually hidden criminal activity that presents a huge challenge for corporations. The nature of labour slavery in many industries is such that even the most scrupulous corporations will risk purveying slavery-tainted goods if national governments of source countries do not take responsibility for the problem.
It is governments, not corporations, who have the authority and the obligation to enforce national laws against slavery and trafficking. It is local and national police, prosecutors, and judges, not corporate executives, who can investigate, arrest, prosecute, and punish those whose presence is inevitable in every slavery situation: the perpetrators.
The passing of the California Business Transparency Act and the UK Modern Slavery Act, both of which require corporations of a certain size to provide information about their practices to limit trafficked labour in their supply chains, has made the issue of labour slavery a priority for corporations, investors, consumers and importing countries. It is absolutely essential that national governments, especially those with a heavy slavery burden, be part of the conversation – and an indispensable part of the solution.
National governments have too often been quite content to let corporations address the problem of forced, trafficked and child labour in export industries. A different approach is required. Corporations must enter into dialogue with national governments about the enforcement of criminal laws against slavery. They must also collaborate to identify and investigate those individuals who are profiting from the unpaid, coerced and exploited work of children and adults in their industries.
Measure and replicate what works
The adoption of SDG 8.7 and the growing public interest in eliminating the trade of slavery-made goods have created a positive environment – and an actual demand – for strategies to identify and free slaves and deter perpetrators. Donor governments such as that of the United Kingdom are investing much larger amounts in the anti-slavery cause, and international organizations such as the International Labour Organization and International Organization for MIgration are doubling down on estimating slavery prevalence nationally and globally.
What is needed most in this time of greatly increased opportunity are tested, validated programmes that build national and local capacity to enforce anti-slavery laws. Fortunately, there are clear indications that when governments focus on the perpetrators of slavery, others engaged in exploitation and abuse are extremely quick to acknowledge the risk. That is how we create deterrence and prevent future crimes.
There are already pilot programmes which are proof of this. They need to be studied, measured, perfected and taken to scale globally.
Don't miss any update on this topic
Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.
License and Republishing
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
More on Global GovernanceSee all
Selina Hänni and Micol Lucchi
January 17, 2024
January 15, 2024
January 11, 2024
January 10, 2024