International Labour Organisation study reports increased global slavery figures

Out-Law News | 20 Sep 2022 | 3:23 pm | 3 min. read

A recent report published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggests even higher estimates of modern slavery than previous studies.

According to the report, around 50 million people are trapped in forced labour or forced marriages – an increase of nearly 10 million from 2016. In total, around 27.6 million people are currently in forced labour, including 3.3 million children. Alongside providing increased figures it cites disruption to income because of the Covid-19 pandemic leading to greater indebtedness among workers and a rise in debt bondage, a form of modern slavery.

Sean Elson of Pinsent Masons said: “This report is a timely reminder that, far from being a problem that the world is getting to grips with, in many ways our handle on forced labour is actually deteriorating. While there have been several high-profile prosecutions in the UK and elsewhere against gangmasters and traffickers, these are only the primary offenders.

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Sean Elson

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Governments alone cannot stamp out forced labour, which is why corporate responsibility will be central to tackling the issue. Encouragingly, a lot of work is already being done around businesses setting standards and monitoring their supply chains

He added: “The report may inform the UK’s approach and its stated intention to upgrade domestic law and compel improvements from organisations on supply chain transparency and risk assessment. This reform would follow similar steps being taken globally – in particular across the EU – which currently leave the UK looking like it has lost any claim to global leadership on eradicating this evil.”

The report reiterates that modern slavery is not confined to developing countries, with more than half of all forced labour occurring in wealthier countries. A similar report from the Walk Free Foundation, who were also involved in the 2022 analysis, found that the prevalence of modern slavery was highest in Africa. According to the recent ILO analysis, forced labour now seems to be highest in the Arab states with 5.3 victims per 1,000 people, although the ILO noted that there are substantial gaps in the data available in the Middle East. The region is followed respectively by Europe and Central Asia, the Americas, Asia, and then Africa, which now has around 2.9 modern slavery victims per 1,000 people.

The report also noted a significant shift in the gender of modern slavery victims recorded in recent years. While around 71% of victims were female and 29% male in 2018, this year’s report found that 54% were female and 46%, 22.8 million victims, were male. The ILO said the challenge of forced labour “is too big, and its myriad root causes too complex, for national governments or other stakeholders to address on their own.” It added that international support for financing and resource mobilisation were “key ingredients” needed as part of “broader cooperation” against forced labour and human trafficking.

Elson said: “As the ILO report makes clear, governments alone cannot stamp out forced labour, which is why corporate responsibility will be central to tackling the issue. Encouragingly, a lot of work is already being done around businesses setting standards and monitoring their supply chains – but there is always room for improvement.”

He added: “From a corporate compliance perspective, the pressure continues to arise from ethical and reputational considerations rather than owing to the enforcement landscape as significant regulatory action has not been taken against corporates who tolerate forced labour and human trafficking in their supply chains. Planned changes to the law are, however, expected.”

A mix of “compounding crises” are to blame for the increases in forced labour, the ILO said, including Covid-19 and global armed conflict – which increase poverty and heighten the risk of enslavement. It added that the pandemic had caused an increase in "extreme global poverty" for the first time in 20 years, disrupting many workers’ income and leaving millions of households in debt. For those without access to proper credit channels, the situation can be exploited to trap people into forced labour.

At the same time, war and armed conflict can see children recruited to work or serve as child soldiers, and climate change has forced many people to flee their homes, making them more vulnerable to human traffickers.

Neil Carslaw of Pinsent Masons said: “The new report and increased figures confirm that the risks of modern slavery remain hidden in plain sight. A business based in a ‘lower risk’ jurisdiction with limited supply chains presuming they are free from connections to slavery is understandable but dangerous.”

“Even one instance or suspicion of modern slavery connected to a business would have severe ethical and potentially commercial consequences. Given the hidden nature of this issue, there’s also an obvious risk of companies overstating their compliance efforts in their modern slavery statements but, in reality, overlooking the issue entirely,” he added.