Symposium: Tomorrow’s Slavery, Today | A Response

25 October 2019
Research Innovation

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

What the respondents to this dialogue have commonly noted is that the drivers of contemporary forms of slavery are varied, complex and continuously evolving as global economic, geopolitical, demographic, environmental and labour market factors change. It is also commonly asserted that measures to effectively tackle slavery require the input and collaboration of governments, international and local civil society organizations, researchers and businesses. Nevertheless, there is still a lack of consensus about the definitive solutions to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery. As my report—which drew on submissions by a number of civil society organizations and Member States—demonstrates, the contours of a more effective approach are however beginning to take substantive shape.

The contributors to this Symposium have offered a set of pertinent insights in response to my report which elucidate both the nature of the problems the anti-slavery movement faces and what we can continue and need to begin to do to achieve SDG Target 8.7 by 2030. Drawing on the submissions received in the compilation of my report, I will elaborate on three threads in particular in the present response: survivor leadership, technological innovation and business engagement.

Only on the basis of such a sound, evidence-based understanding of what the issues are can we devise effective solutions, which themselves must be continually subject to scrutiny and measurement.

Survivors should be at the centre of anti-slavery efforts as leaders and interlocutors. As Nat Paul and Jess Torres argue, survivor inclusion should be the first step in devising anti-slavery responses. This is both an ethical imperative and a question of efficacy without which anti-slavery efforts will be “critically limited”. Initiatives, such as the Survivor Alliance and the National Survivor Network, have played a pioneering role in amplifying and empowering survivor voices. No other stakeholders—no matter how committed and well-intentioned—can have the same “insights as survivors about slavery’s impact on individuals and communities. Survivors are better placed to articulate what is required to enable their recovery and what can be done to prevent others from experiencing similar exploitation.” Thus, supporting and investing in initiatives like the Survivor Alliance is necessary to ensure that survivors have a voice as rights-holders in decisions affecting them. They also need to be empowered and trained in order to acquire the requisite skills and tools to not only thrive in society but also to play a leading role in the anti-slavery movement. Anti-slavery interventions must include not only efforts to strengthen criminal justice responses but also to ensure effective provision of support and services for victims and survivors. Instead of a singular focus on rescue and prosecution, the underlying structural factors that constitute drivers to slavery, namely poverty, labour precarity and lack of legal protections for migrants, among others, should occupy centre stage.

My report also highlighted the central role technological innovations can play in delivering, fine-tuning and scaling anti-slavery efforts. Dr Laura Gauer Bermudez, for example, noted that “technologies that amplify worker voice” could be harnessed to better monitor risk throughout a business’s supply chain. In their submission to my report preparation, Tech Against Trafficking similarly enumerated a variety of new smartphone applications that can now empower and educate vulnerable populations. Such innovation will require stakeholders to work closely to ensure novel technologies are effectively and ethically utilized, and are accessible to vulnerable populations, including in the global South. Given the dearth of funding and resources, information-sharing and collaboration on the development of and access to technological tools is highly pertinent. In fact, tech tools can be harnessed to address the wider fragmentation that currently plagues anti-slavery efforts, especially around resource allocation and knowledge-sharing. Tech solutions, however, cannot be solely depended on as a panacea but should rather “complement rather than displace other initiatives, especially grassroots and worker-led efforts.” They should also be developed, tested, and adopted in consort and consultation with the populations they are meant to support and serve.

Relatedly, engagement with the private sector is paramount. Nat Paul and Jess Torres hone in on the underlying structural vulnerabilities that constitute drivers to slavery. As noted in my report, these include access to decent, formal employment that can sustain one’s livelihood. Thus, the private sector plays an important role in not only eliminating risk in its supply and value chains but also in working with governments to ensure individuals have access to decent work for which they are fairly paid. And while there has been a marked increase in domestic transparency in supply chains (TISC) legislation, enforcement has neither been adequate nor effective, and “there is limited evidence to suggest that the legislation has produced meaningful changes in companies’ behaviour on a large scale.” Therefore, legal frameworks to regulate corporations should be enhanced by other enforcement and monitoring mechanisms, such as the “human rights due diligence approach adopted in France, customs provisions introduced in the USA and the creation of a ‘Dirty List’ for offending companies in Brazil.” It is also vital that businesses effectively implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and—once adopted—the legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

Public procurement is another growing but still insufficiently tapped source of leverage that can compel businesses to comply with human rights norms and standards and due diligence requirements. In addition to public-private partnerships, Gauer Bermudez rightly argues that stakeholders from the private sector must work conjointly and share information on what measures are effective to reduce risk and furnish remedies.

At the heart of the aforementioned foci and efforts is rigorous research that illuminates what Dr Katarina Schwarz referred to as “the realities of the status quo.” Only on the basis of such a sound, evidence-based understanding of what the issues are can we devise effective solutions, which themselves must be continually subject to scrutiny and measurement. Closer engagements between various actors in the anti-slavery space—and beyond, as Gauer Bermudez pointedly suggests—is essential. This will not only link grassroots and local movements to regional and global efforts but will also ensure that efforts, whether in research, policy or programme design, are co-constitutive, based on dialogue and most importantly, responsive to the needs and experiences of survivors and potential victims.

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.

Symposium: Tomorrow’s Slavery, Today


The Delta 8.7 Forum

Can New US Law Help Increase Financial Recovery and Reintegration of Survivors of Human Trafficking?

Professor Barry Koch, Dr Leona Vaughn, Sarah Byrne
Continue Reading

Gendered Understandings of Forced Sexual Exploitation

Ellie Newman-Granger
Continue Reading

Forced Labour Import Bans: What Does the Evidence Tell Us?

Owain Johnstone
Continue Reading

Gendered Understandings of Forced Sexual Exploitation

Ellie Newman-Granger
Continue Reading

Domestic Slave Labour in Brazil

Maurício Krepsky Fagundes
Continue Reading

Indigenous Peoples and the Anti-Trafficking Sector’s Blind Spot

Miriam Karmali, Krysta Bisnauth
Continue Reading