Symposium: An Introduction to Tomorrow’s Slavery, Today

21 October 2019
Research Innovation

Urmila Bhoola  | United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences

On 9 September 2019, I presented my report, Current and emerging forms of slavery, to the UN Human Rights Council in the role of Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. The report reflects on lessons learned from my six years in the role, the current contours of modern slavery, and how they may shift in years ahead, drawing from over 20 submissions from a global call for inputs.

The report offers evidence-based reflection on how contemporary forms of slavery may evolve in the near future and it also critically assesses anti-slavery efforts. The Delta 8.7 Symposium that this short summary of my report kicks off aims to foster discussion on these important themes. Is today’s anti-slavery well positioned to deal with tomorrow’s slavery?

Tomorrow’s challenges for today’s anti-slavery measures

For a discussion of tomorrow’s slavery landscape to be something other than mere speculation, it must be rooted in evidence. In my report, I look at what we currently know about the sources of vulnerability to slavery, and then consider how these may change or how they may be exacerbated. 

Our understanding of where and why contemporary forms of slavery manifest is improving, through use of new statistical methods, such as sentinel surveillance, network scale-up methods and multiple systems estimation (MSE).[1] Recent research and modelling has begun to identify vulnerability and risk factors, which include age, gender, income, employment status, education level, health and other factors relating to social isolation.[2]

 This  research helps us understand  how slavery may change in the years ahead. The report considers several factors, relating to the future of work, demographic trends and migration, economic changes, environmental change and other emerging trends.

Slavery risk factors in the labour market, such as informality and casualization, will increase. Sixty per cent of the world’s working population is already in informal work.[3] Increasing automation and the rise of the “gig economy” through digital platforms may increase this number, and worker vulnerability.[4]  The impact will be significant in developing countries, where 85.6 per cent of the 25.6 million young people entering the labour market by 2030 will be located.[5] A deficit of traditional jobs in those places will fuel migration, increasing also the vulnerability to trafficking in persons.[6]

These risks will play out differently in different places. In Asia, for example, economic growth and urbanization may generate jobs, including for migrants, but  we have seen that work in construction and the infrastructure sector is often not decent but exploitative . In many places, the differential impact of climate change on value-chains, livelihoods and households will increase vulnerability to contemporary forms of slavery, as people may be forced to take on exploitative jobs. By 2050, approximately 5 billion people will reside in areas where the climate “will exceed historical bounds of variability,”[7] potentially driving competition for scarce resources among producers, compelling them to drive down labour costs.[8]

Technological and institutional change are also important to factor in. Cybertechnologies, “voluntourism” and the emergence of for-profit orphanages are all leading to new forms of trafficking and exploitation.[9] And there are indications that enslavement is resurging in armed conflict: not only as a means of recruitment but also as an instrument of ideological subjugation and terror.

Finally, in societies where there is a persistent gender imbalance, there will be an increased risk of forced marriage and sexual slavery. Long-term displacement will also likely lead to a rise in servile forms of marriage,  further increasing female participation in vulnerable domestic work and forced labour.[10]

Anti-slavery efforts today 

Being the main duty bearers, the actions of Member States remain central to the struggle to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery. There is good and bad news here. To date, forty States have ratified the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention (P029). Governments are taking legislative action, including in previously neglected areas: Estonia, Morocco, New Zealand and Spain, for example, are implementing criminal justice measures to address forced marriage.[11] Forty countries have initiated efforts to exclude modern slavery from public and private supply chains, and there is growing attention to the role of the financial sector in excluding these risks from financial markets – notably the Liechtenstein Initiative for Finance Against Slavery and Trafficking.

Government funding of anti-slavery efforts has increased considerably. Between 2003 and 2013, 30 OECD countries provisioned more than $4 billion in official development assistance to combat the contemporary forms of exploitation now outlined in Goal 8.7.[12] And there has been a proliferation of international coordination efforts, from the Call to Action to End Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, to Alliance 8.7.

Yet a key question remains. What does all this activity add up to? Are our measures “effective”, as Target 8.7 demands, and with the current level of efforts, will contemporary forms of slavery be eliminated by 2030? Will all forms of child labour be eradicated by 2025 as SDG Target 8.7 requests all States to do?

Are we adopting effective measures?

The international community’s ability to identify effective measures is limited by the paucity of comparable programme and policy-level monitoring and evaluation.[13] Nonetheless, the traits of effectiveness have begun to be identified.[14]

First, effective measures must address vulnerabilities at the local level, while also operating at scale, to address global drivers.[15] Second, there is increasing emphasis on multi-stakeholder partnerships to tackle what is a multifaceted issue requiring concerted, strategic solutions.[16] Third, there is a growing recognition that policies and programmes should include survivors as agents of change. Fourth, there is an expanding view that successful interventions work with market mechanisms. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, businesses are required to uphold their duties to respect human rights through due diligence, as well as use of leverage and provision of remedy for harms to which business is connected. And fifth, the potency of tech as an amplifier of anti-slavery efforts is now increasingly recognized.[17]

In addition, my report also suggests that there is growing consensus around what is missing from current anti-slavery efforts, and the gaps which need to filled to achieve progress in eradicating slavery in compliance with SDG Target 8.7.

While slavery is illegal in most countries there is a real and persistent impunity gap, especially in areas where the reach of the State is limited, or the rule of law is compromised. Greater effort by States is necessary to hold each other accountable, especially when States are themselves implicated in exploitation.[18]

Data collection and analysis has also been a challenge due to the hidden nature of contemporary forms of slavery, insufficient allocation of resources and the lack of shared typologies and collection methodologies. Current prevalence estimation approaches operate at a high level and tend to overlook differences in vulnerability at the local and sectoral level.[19] However, new research has suggested indicators for assessing what works to achieve SDG Target 8.7 in specific regions and countries.[20]

Resources allocated to support anti-slavery efforts have been limited, especially in comparison to the $150 billion in annual criminal profits ILO estimates are generated solely from forced labour. Resources spent on combating efforts need not match profits 1:1. However, spending can be better coordinated and strategically allocated, and other forms of funding, such as access to public procurement and investment contracts, can be utilized as leverage to reward slavery-preventing business practices.[21]

Perhaps most problematically, at present there is no shared understanding of either the resources available or  what exactly is needed to tackle contemporary forms of slavery. We have no shared strategy for achieving SDG Target 8.7. Nor are there mechanisms or a guiding framework for stakeholders to coordinate action to ensure resources are used where they are needed and can have the most impact.

Towards solutions

My report concludes by suggesting an approach to combat contemporary forms of slavery that is grounded in six fundamental characteristics. It must be: systematic, scientific, strategic, sustainable, survivor-informed and smart.

First, since slavery results from how our global political, social, and economic systems function, tackling it requires changing fundamental aspects of how those systems operate. We must think and work at a more systemic level, harnessing existing social, financial, trade and public health infrastructure to support anti-slavery efforts.[22] Top-down responses, such as criminal justice measures, must be conjoined with efforts to strengthen local capacity and to empower vulnerable populations, including through unions and workers organizations.

Second, policies and programmes must be scientifically grounded to ensure effectiveness. Without evidence as to the nature and prevalence of gaps or specific indicators to measure impact, efforts are not likely to address real problems. or have significant impact.

Third, efforts must be more strategic and coordinated. Member States could develop a global framework for action through, for instance, agreeing on relevant ODA reporting codes or using Alliance 8.7 to develop a shared strategy to achieve Target 8.7. The Alliance has yet to develop a shared strategy for allocating resources, for instance identifying more  Pathfinder countries based on potential impact in areas where slavery is more prevalent.

Fourth, anti-slavery efforts must be integrated into broader sustainable development activities within the framework of the 2030 agenda. There are close connections between successful anti-slavery efforts and broader interventions to achieve sustainable development, poverty eradication, on dimensions ranging from education outcomes to social protection to women’s empowerment and gender equality to productivity gains. The established global development infrastructure, including the multilateral financing institutions, UN country teams and regional development banks and economic commissions, are notably absent from today’s anti-slavery efforts. That is a problem.

Fifth, survivors must be at the centre of anti-slavery efforts and their own voices must be heard. There have been important initiatives in some countries focused on supporting victims and putting victim-support frameworks on a legislative footing, but as a whole their agency and expertise remains under-valued, under-compensated and under-developed.

Sixth and finally, anti-slavery efforts can be fine-tuned and enhanced through the use of new technological innovations, such as artificial intelligence, satellites, and machine learning. Code 8.7, an initiative bringing together anti-slavery leaders and actors in computational science and AI, may offer an avenue for promoting the collaboration needed to explore these possibilities. Most importantly, technology applications must be guided by human rights principles and standards, such as the Worker Engagement Supported by Technology (WEST) Principles.

Urmila Bhoola is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences. Follow her on Twitter: @ubhoola62

This article has been prepared by Urmila Bhoola as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

This piece has been prepared as part of the Delta 8.7 Tomorrow’s Slavery symposium. Read all the responses here.

[1] Walk Free submission to the Special Rapporteur’s call for submissions for her final thematic report, pp. 6-7; On sentinel surveillance see UNU-CS submission, Q6; and see UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, “Human trafficking sentinel surveillance: Poipet, Cambodia, 2009-2010” (Bangkok, 2010); and UNIAP, “Human trafficking sentinel surveillance: Viet Nam – China Border 2010” (Bangkok, 2011).

[2] Jacqueline Joudo Larsen and Pablo Diego-Rossel, “Modelling the Risk of Modern Slavery”, SSRN Electronic Journal, 2018. See also Submission of Government of Malta; Walk Free.

[3] ILO, “Informality and non-standard forms of employment”, paper prepared for the G20 Employment Working Group (Buenos Aires, 20–22 February 2018).

[4] Elizabeth Stuart, Emma Samman and Abigail Hunt, “Informal is the new normal: improving the lives of workers at risk of being left behind”, Overseas Development Institute Working Paper 530, January 2018; and Amolo Ng’weno and David Porteous “Let’s be real: the informal sector and the gig economy are the future, and the present, of work in Africa”, Center for Global Development, CGD Note,  October 2018.

[5] ILO, Global Employment Trends for Youth 2017: Paths to a Better Working Future (Geneva, 2017); and ILO, Inception Report for the Global Commission on the Future of Work (Geneva, 2017).

[6] Genevieve LeBaron and others, Confronting Root Causes of Forced Labour: Forced Labour in Global Supply Chains (openDemocracy and Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, 2018); and Nicola Phillips, Genevieve LeBaron and Sara Wallin, Mapping and Measuring the Effectiveness of Labour-Related Disclosure Requirements for Global Supply Chains, Research Department Working Paper No. 32 (ILO, 2018).

[7] Andrew Freedman, “Up to five billion face ‘entirely new climate’ by 2050”, Climate Central, 9 October 2013.

[8] Freedom Fund submission, Q4; Walk Free submission.

[9] Lumos Foundation submission; see also Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Hidden in Plain Sight: An Inquiry into Establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia (Canberra, 2017), sect. 8.

[10] Claire Healy, Targeting Vulnerabilities: The Impact of the Syrian War and Refugee Situation on Trafficking in Persons – A Study of Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq (Vienna, International Centre for Migration Policy Development, 2015).

[11] Walk Free Foundation, Measurement, Action, Freedom. An Independent Assessment of Government Progress Towards Achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 (Minderoo Foundation, 2019).

[12] Kelly Gleason and James Cockayne, Official Development Assistance and SDG Target 8.7: Measuring Aid to Address Forced Labour, Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking and Child Labour (New York, Delta 8.7 and United Nations University, 2018).

[13] Global Fund to End Modern Slavery submission., p. 1; Tech Against Trafficking submission, p. 3.

[14] Pauline Oosterhoff et al., “Modern slavery prevention and responses in South Asia: An evidence map” Report of the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom (London, 2018); Katharine Bryant and Bernadette Joudo, “Promising practices: what works? A review of interventions to combat modern day slavery”, Walk Free Foundation, 2018; METIP.

[15] Freedom Fund, Unlocking what works: How community-based interventions are ending bonded labour in India (London & New York, 2019).

[16] See

[17] United Nations University, Code 8.7 Symposium: Using Computational Science and AI to End Modern Slavery (New York, 19–20 February 2019).

[18] Philippa Webb and Rosana Garciandia, “State responsibility for modern slavery: uncovering and bridging the gap”, International and Comparative Law Quarterly, vol. 68, Issue 3 (July 2019). See also Monash Trafficking and Slavery Research Group submission, p. 2.

[19] National Survivor Network submission.

[20] Walk Free Foundation, Measurement, Action, Freedom.

[21] Global Fund to End Modern Slavery submission, p. 3; James Cockayne, Innovation for Inclusion: Using Digital Technology to Increase Financial Agency and Prevent Modern Slavery, Secretariat Briefing Paper 3, Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking (United Nations University, 2019).

[22] HEAL Trafficking and Ethical Trading Initiative submissions.

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