Report revealing steady rise in 'modern day slavery' a wakeup call for world

As per the Global Slavery Index 2018, India had the largest number of ‘modern slaves’ in the world. Post-pandemic, this number would only have gone up


Dr Gyan Pathak

A report has revealed that the rising trend of ‘modern day slavery’ in the form of forced labour and involuntary marriages has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic across the world.

The report, titled ‘Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage’ prepared by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the international human rights group ‘Walk Free’, states that in 2021, some 50 million people globally were living in ‘modern slavery’ on any given day: 28 million in forced labour and 22 million in forced marriages.

The number of such people has risen by 10 million since 2016.

Nearly 1 in every 150 people in the world is thus suffering from ‘modern slavery’.

The report has a special significance for India since it reveals that most cases of forced labour – about 86 per cent – are found in the private sector, which also sees forced commercial sexual exploitation of 23 per cent people. Almost four out of five of those in forced commercial sexual exploitation are women or girls.

The Modi government has been on a privatisation spree for quite some time. It has sold public sector enterprises to the corporates below the market rates by maligning the public sector even while its policies enabled the private sector to get prosperous than ever before.

The report in question also validates the concerns of the central trade unions who have all along been alleging that the implementation of the four labour codes in the name of the ‘biggest such reforms ever’ would only usher in a new era of ‘modern day slavery’ in India.

Though the report in question does not have any specific data for India, it must be noted that in its Global Slavery Index released way back in 2018, ‘Walk Free’ had said that India had the largest number of ‘modern slaves’ in the world. It had estimated the vulnerability to ‘modern slavery’ at 54.49 per cent and the proportion of the population living in ‘modern slavery’ at 6.1 per thousand, while grading the government’s response to it at a poor ‘B’.

India had about 8 million ‘modern slaves’ at that time, followed by 3.86 million in China and 3.19 million in Pakistan, it had said.

Since the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation, it can safely be assumed that India has far more such people now.

The systemic and deliberate withholding of wages, used by abusive employers to compel workers to stay in a job out of fear of losing accrued earnings, in the most common form of coercion, is being experienced by 36 per cent of those in forced labour, the report says.

This is followed by abuse of vulnerability through threat of dismissal, which was experienced by one in five of those in forced labour.

More severe forms of coercion, including forced confinement, physical and sexual violence and the deprivation of basic needs, are less common but by no means negligible.

​The series of crises – the COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflicts and climate change – in recent years have led to an unprecedented disruption of employment and education, increases in extreme poverty and forced and unsafe migration, and an upsurge in reports of gender-based violence, together serving to heighten the risk of all forms of 'modern slavery'.

As is usually the case, it is those who are already in situations of greatest vulnerability – including the poor and the socially excluded, workers in the informal economy, irregular or otherwise unprotected migrant workers, and people subject to discrimination – who are the most affected.

Since forced labour and forced marriage are the two principal components of ‘modern slavery’, as defined for the purpose of the report in question, it obviously does not count all forms of slavery of the workforce.

It is pertinent to recall that no less an institution than the Supreme Court of India had last year termed MGNREGA workers, who receive less than minimum wages, suffering due to delay in payment of wages to them due to government apathy as ‘modern day slavery’.

Though this doesn't form a part of the report, it has estimated 'State-imposed forced labour' at about 14 per cent of the total cases globally.

The report included forced labour and forced marriage as ‘modern slavery’ since both refer to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or cannot leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, or abuse of power.

Almost one in eight of all those in forced labour are children, whose figure is put at about 3.3 million. More than half of these suffer from commercial sexual exploitation.

We in India have seen the great migrant labour crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic in which hundreds, if not thousands, of people perished while walking back home from cities, without getting any help from the Modi government which had imposed a sudden lockdown without giving them enough time to face the crisis.

Now the present report has pointed out that migrant workers are more than three times more likely to be in forced labour than non-migrant adult workers. They are particularly vulnerable not only to forced labour but also to trafficking, because of irregular or poorly governed migration, or unfair and unethical recruitment practices.

António Vitorino, IOM Director-General, said: “This report underscores the urgency of ensuring that all migration is safe, orderly, and regular. Reducing the vulnerability of migrants to forced labour and trafficking in persons depends first and foremost on national policy and legal frameworks that respect, protect, and fulfil the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants – and potential migrants – at all stages of the migration process, regardless of their migration status. The whole of society must work together to reverse these shocking trends, including through implementation of the Global Compact on Migration.”

An estimated 22 million people were living in forced marriage on any given day in 2021. It was an increase of 6.6 million since 2016. India is specifically mentioned in this regard along with 10 other countries of the world, including our neighbours Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The true incidence of forced marriage, particularly involving children aged 16 and younger, is likely far greater than the current estimates can capture, the report has admitted, while clarifying that the present estimates are based on a narrow definition and do not include all child marriages.

Child marriages are considered to be forced because a child cannot legally give consent to marry.

 “It is shocking that the situation of modern slavery is not improving. Nothing can justify the persistence of this fundamental abuse of human rights,” said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder.

“We know what needs to be done, and we know it can be done. Effective national policies and regulation are fundamental. But governments cannot do this alone. International standards provide a sound basis, and an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed. Trade unions, employers' organizations, civil society and ordinary people all have critical roles to play,” he added.

 Grace Forrest, founding director of ‘Walk Free’, said: “Modern slavery is the antithesis of sustainable development. Yet, in 2022, it continues to underpin our global economy. It is a man-made problem, connected to both historical slavery and persisting structural inequality. In a time of compounding crises, genuine political will is the key to ending these human rights abuses.”

 (IPA Service)

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