Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

Should aid agencies set their sights on modern slavery?

Could development and humanitarian aid do for modern slavery what it has done for poverty?

Aidan McQuade
9 November 2022, 7.00am

Bicycle manufacture in Haryana, India


ILO/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)

The 2021 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, released last month, make for bleak reading. Fifty million people are now thought to be enslaved, 10 million more than the previous estimate in 2016. The estimated number of people in forced labour has increased by 2.7 million to 27.6 million, while the estimated number of people in forced marriage has risen by 6.6 million to 22 million.

The report, jointly released by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and WalkFREE, offers some explanations for this rise. Migrants are vulnerable to forced labour and exploitation, for example, so crises like the military coup in Myanmar increase the risks by making more refugees. The lack of respect for collective bargaining in many places can also expose workers to exploitative labour practices, and the resultant lack of decent work for adults makes it more likely that children will start working to enable their families to survive.

On top of all that, the global economic downturn has increased indebtedness amongst poor people. This has inevitably led to the growth in debt bondage, a pernicious enabler of modern slavery that affects approximately one-fifth of those currently enslaved (10 million people).

But such details obscure a simpler truth: slavery has increased because few governments, and fewer development and humanitarian policy makers and practitioners, are doing anything meaningful to combat it.

What does it take to reduce slavery?

Slavery is a complicated issue because it is so bound up in both our politics and our economy. It doesn’t just happen between people in isolation. The laws, policies and practices that governments and societies use to regulate business, trade, employment, education, and other areas of life create opportunities for exploitation. And from some of those opportunities, slavery emerges.

Given this, it is understandable that any senior government official reading a report like the Global Estimates would find the challenge of ending slavery overwhelming. The solutions are complex, and the necessary systemic changes would inevitably hit massive headwinds from competing interests. How can it possibly be done?

Development and humanitarian policy makers and practitioners, who rarely deign to think about slavery, need to step up to the plate.

Given that this is the nub of it, it is wholly bizarre that the global estimates barely mentions the Forced Labour Protocol, an international law agreed in 2014. Because this protocol answers that very question.

The Forced Labour Protocol is about several things. But at its heart, it requires those governments that ratify it to commit to developing, with businesses and trade unions, action plans to combat modern slavery and human trafficking. In other words, it is centrally about process. It is about the how of combatting slavery, rather than the what.

The problem is, not many countries have ratified it – 59 at last count. If authors of reports as high profile as the Global Estimates continue to forget about it, it is difficult to imagine that list of countries growing fast.

Money is almost certainly why some countries are hesitating; any meaningful action plan comes with a high price tag. Who will pay, for example, for student grants so that girls can go to school without their families becoming more indebted? Or for hiring more labour inspectors to ensure that workers have decent work with a living wage? For some countries, particularly in the Global South at times of economic downturn, the answer must be ‘not us, not now’.

Orient aid budgets to reducing slavery

This is where those development and humanitarian policy makers and practitioners, who rarely deign to think about slavery, need to step up to the plate. Many aid programmes have shown the impact that direct cash transfers can have on poverty. With some more careful targeting on the 10 million currently in debt bondage, they could also demonstrate the impact that such approaches could have on slavery.

Furthermore, commitments by development policy makers to open new budget lines in their aid programmes to fund credible action plans would be a considerable incentive for governments that have not ratified the Forced Labour Protocol to do so, and for those who have only tinkered with action plans to seriously engage.

Given that any serious action plan must address the challenge of expanding access to decent work, the action plans of the Global South could be complemented by anti-slavery action plans in the Global North that include domestic and transnational legislation to prevent businesses from squeezing suppliers in their supply chains. Decent work would also enhance the impact of direct cash transfers by reducing both the pressure on individuals to migrate and the risk of indebtedness.

Approaches such as these would be much better use of domestic and foreign aid budgets than recent right-wing efforts to waste tax-payers’ money on punitive measures to prevent migration overseas.

If we’re to see a real and measurable reduction in slavery before the next global estimates are released in five years’ time, policy makers will have to pay careful attention to the processes of slavery reduction, customised and financed to meet the national and regional challenges. For now, when it comes to anti-slavery action, policy makers are merely wringing their hands when they are not sitting on them.

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