Symposium: Practical Applications of an Anti-Slavery Legislative Database

19 May 2020
Research Innovation

Laura Gauer Bermudez  | Director of Evidence and Learning, the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery

The Antislavery in Domestic Legislation Database (hereafter referred to as “the Database”) reflects a tremendous amount of effort on the part of Dr Katarina Schwarz and Professor Jean Allain to comprehensively map legislative frameworks that seek to prohibit slavery around the world.  Such endeavours are critical for advancing thoughtful analysis and comparative critique of the enactment and utilization of various legal instruments available to pursue justice for the most marginalized.

Invited to provide commentary on the Database, I considered its utility from two vantage points. First, I viewed the Database as a team member of a Fund that supports implementing organizations, considering the value add for partners continuing to push forward anti-slavery efforts globally. Next, I examined the Database from the orientation of a researcher, exploring its utility to expand knowledge on the effectiveness of various legal instruments to address modern slavery.

From an implementation perspective, the Database can offer insight into the various legal instruments at one’s disposal in a given Member State. We know that modern slavery, as an umbrella term, encompasses a wide variety of exploitative conditions. When working with implementers locally on modern slavery issues, the provisions they turn to for the prosecution of perpetrators and restitution for victims is somewhat variable depending upon the context, the case, the geography and the precedent for what has worked effectively in the past. Sometimes the right fit is a forced labour law, sometimes it is a bonded labour law and sometimes it is a trafficking law. Context and precedent matter and understanding what options exist can help advocates push for expanded provisions—when and where the current set are deemed insufficient to tackle the spectrum of exploitation that is occurring.

Further, knowing how neighbouring states and/or states addressing similar modern slavery issues are responding to cases, specifically which legal provisions they call upon, can be immensely helpful. As a follow-on to the development of this database, it may be useful to curate a series of case studies on the usage of various legal provisions by Member States. Are there Member States that have used slavery or servitude provisions successfully? What were the parameters of those cases and what made them more appropriate to be addressed by a slavery or servitude provision as opposed to a trafficking or forced labour provision? Are there cases of modern slavery, such as forced marriage, that were not effectively addressed by existing legal provisions and thus have required a new provision? It would also be interesting to see cases where multiple provisions are layered upon one another for harsher sentencing. Lastly, it would be useful to see where and how constitutional provisions have been translated into tangible criminal or labour law. Understanding those practical applications of the legal instruments can foster learning and sharing across Member States to collectively improve and evolve access to justice for victims.

When considering the Database from the point of view of a researcher, I find it to inspire a number of inquiries that could be the basis for a legislative research agenda on modern slavery.

First is the possibility of analysing national level prevalence estimates against the associated legal frameworks within Member States. Such a study could begin to speculate on a relationship between robust legal provisions and the prevalence of modern slavery. The study would need to skillfully articulate nuance around the often unknown relationship between increased awareness and increased reporting/arrest, meaning that the establishment of new penalties may result in higher prevalence levels in the years following the passage of a law.

Similarly, the Database would also be an excellent resource for governments to think about natural experiments that seek to examine prevalence rates prior to and after various legal frameworks are enacted as well as comparing across countries with similar dynamics. As above, any study attempting to utilize prevalence estimates as comparators would need to account for the effect of awareness on reporting as well as the standard issue sticking points in prevalence estimation, such as measurement standardization and the role of additional confounding externalities.

The effect of legislation on private sector behaviour is also of interest. In particular, the concept of private sector reputational risk as it relates to legal provisions on modern slavery. How does the desire to uphold or preserve the reputation of a company drive decision-making and deter modern slavery, and does criminal law in states where products are manufactured or sourced bolster the perception of those risks? Does the frequency with which cases are brought to court and/or the outcome of those cases alter that risk calculation further? This type of deterrence analysis, which is more qualitative in nature, can yield very pragmatic insights on the importance of a robust legal framework for influencing the behaviour of key stakeholders.

In sum, the Database offers a tool for the antislavery community to build upon, encouraging dialogue and coordination between Member States in their efforts to establish robust legal frameworks that effectively bring perpetrators to justice and deter future exploitation.

Dr Laura Gauer Bermudez is the Director of Evidence and Learning at the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery.

This article has been prepared by Laura Gauer Bermudez 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 “Antislavery in Domestic Legislation Database” symposium. Read all the responses below:

Symposium: The Antislavery in Domestic Legislation Database

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