Civil Society

How to stop modern slavery

Nurta Mohamed, 13, a Somali girl sits inside her mother's makeshift shelter after she ran away from a suspected forced marriage at the Alafuuto camp for internally displaced persons in Garasbaaley district of Mogadishu, Somalia August 14, 2020. Picture taken August 14, 2020. REUTERS/Feisal Omar - RC2LHI9D74I0

One in four victims of modern slavery – of which forced marriages are a part – are children. Image: REUTERS/Feisal Omar - RC2LHI9D74I0

Arathi Sethumadhavan
User Research Scientist, Technology and Society, Google
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Human Rights

  • Modern slavery is rife in the developed world contrary to popular belief.
  • We need cross-border collaboration among actors in law enforcement, civil society, academia and the private sector to stop the phenomenon.
  • Data- and knowledge-sharing are the most powerful tools we have to address it, but they have their challenges. Collaboration can ease them.

Some believe that slavery is a thing of the past, but that is not the case. The most recent global slavery index estimates that there are 40.3 million women, men and children caught up in it, of whom 24.9 million are in forced labour and 15.4 million living in forced marriages. One in four victims of modern slavery are children.

The phenomenon is another type of global pandemic and, contrary to popular belief, it is prevalent even in developed countries. In fact, more than one and a half million people are living in conditions of modern slavery in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia.

It is also highly lucrative. A recent International Labour Organization report revealed that modern slavery is estimated to generate profits of $150 billion per year globally.

Traffickers may be family members, employers or strangers, but each exploit the vulnerability of victims and are motivated by low risk and high reward.

Breakdown of products imported to the United States that are a risk for modern slavery Image: The Global Slavery Index, 2018 – Walk Free Foundation

Collaboration among actors in law enforcement, civil society, academia and the private sector – and across borders too – is pivotal to overcoming the current status quo. It will facilitate the sharing of data and knowledge, and help develop appropriate technology solutions in order to eliminate, detect, investigate and prosecute modern slavery cases. Here's how:

Technology a double-edged sword

Experts are leveraging technology to tackle slavery on multiple fronts. Slave labour can be mapped out at known sites of modern slavery (such as brick kilns) from space or AI-powered chatbots that carry out conversations with buyers and providers of sexual services to generate leads for law enforcement.

In addition, machine-learning algorithms can analyse advertisements to identify at-risk children, whilst AI can be used for the analysis of statements produced by companies to demonstrate their compliance with the Modern Slavery Act.

While technology can offer benefits in combating slavery, it has also made it easier for perpetrators to perform myriad activities such as recruiting victims, advertising victims to potential customers and conducting financial transactions.

For example, with the rapid growth in digital technology, the global online community of perpetrators has been climbing and new forms of child abuse, such as live-streamed abuse, have emerged.

A lack of data-driven decision-making is stalling progress

The availability of reliable and timely data on areas such as trafficker profiles and the status of investigations is critical in the global fight against slavery. It can then be appropriately shared with the anti-slavery community including law enforcement agencies worldwide.

However, difficulties associated with gathering and storing the data, inadequate data management practices, siloed data access and a lack of standardised data sets make it difficult for policy makers, researchers, practitioners and academics working in the space to develop effective intervention strategies.

Microsoft is a founding member of Tech Against Trafficking, an industry coalition working to address these issues including the development of an open-data standard for collecting and recording data.

Law enforcement professionals worldwide are also overwhelmed by the massive amount of data that they have to examine and often rely on outdated systems to investigate a case.

For example, several agencies still rely on human reviewers to review Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) and thereby determine if an image involves a previously identified or a new child pornography victim. PhotoDNA can relieve humans via the review of known CSAM material.

A breakdown of data on child labour Image: World Vision

The privacy concern attached to data

Most technologies that tackle slavery require data and should respect the privacy of the survivors. It is therefore important to ask key questions as part of technology development. This may include:

How does the technology benefit the survivor, relevant stakeholders and society?

Has consent been obtained from the survivor?

What sensitive information is collected, and how is it used and protected?

For how long and where is the information stored, and who has access to it?

What information is shared with others?

Can survivors opt out?

Fragmented organisational efforts with governments trailing behind

Anti-slavery organisations do not collaborate closely, and there are disjointed efforts in developing tools to combat slavery.

For example, one analysis conducted by the Office of the Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (OSCE) and Tech Against Trafficking in 2020 revealed a list of over 300 technology tools and initiatives addressing trafficking. Several of them were redundant or addressing overlapping problems.

Furthermore, most of these tools are developed by the private sector and NGOs, with governments trailing behind.

Governments also have a major role to play in making sure that victims are treated with respect and assisted in re-integrating into society, but the absence of governance structures in this regard is palpable.

There are some victims of modern slavery who have been trafficked into a foreign country facing deportation or waiting in custody as illegal immigrants. In the US, the T visa is a way to provide relief to victims by enabling them to seek employment authorisation in the US. However, it is difficult to obtain and involves a lengthy process, leaving victims in an even more vulnerable state.

Spreading the word on the mental toll

The psychological well-being of the those working in the anti-slavery space is not given the attention it deserves.

Working with survivors, sifting through the reported content on abuse, conducting investigations and building technologies can all take a toll on the mental health of the partaking stakeholders.

It is very important to acknowledge and invest in the psychological health of those involved in the fight against this heinous crime.

The average person doesn't realise how insidious the effects are

Creating awareness campaigns can help debunk misconceptions about modern slavery, encourage the general public to question their shopping habits and push companies to review their anti-modern slavery best practices.

For instance, Microsoft is working to tackle some of the challenges. Emerging technologies might not have reached their potential, but they can already help in the fight to end modern slavery. Governments, companies and civil society should redouble their efforts to ensure that the benefits of these powerful technologies are realised, and that their risks are addressed through better oversight, governance and regulation.

Each of us, as members of the public, has a role to play. Encouraging individuals to detect the warning signs, report potential crimes, and even come forward to help develop solutions is integral to creating change.

Much needs to be done to fight modern slavery, and these efforts should always respect the dignity of the victims.

It's time to change our mindset. As long as our understanding of slavery is archaic, we will fail to spot just how easily children can be manipulated to engage in sexually explicit conduct online for commercial purposes, for instance, or that the raw materials in our electronics originated from forced labour.

Without this knowledge we are unknowingly contributing to exacerbating the modern slavery problem.

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