human rights /

UN: 50 Million People Still Living in 'Modern Slavery'

ILO Director: 'Nothing can justify the persistence of this fundamental abuse of human rights'

Fifty million people were living in modern slavery last year, with 28 million in situations of forced labour and 22 million trapped in forced marriages in 2021, the United Nations (UN) says.

The UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) released a report on Sept. 12 showing that the number of individuals in modern slavery has increased “significantly” over the last five years.

“Modern slavery occurs in almost every country in the world, and cuts across ethnic, cultural and religious lines,” the agency said in a statement.

The ILO report does not equate the concept of modern slavery with the Trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved people in chattel slavery. Rather, it considers modern slavery a set of legal concepts linked to forced labor, and refers to exploitative situations that a person cannot choose to leave because of threats (debt bondage, human trafficking, slavery, and slavery-like practices).

“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.”

Eighty-six percent of forced labor is found in the private sector, the ILO found. Forced labor in industries other than sexual exploitation accounts for 63 percent of all forced labor, while commercial sex exploitation accounts for 23 percent. Nearly four out of five people in forced sex exploitation are women or girls.

According to the report, Asia and the Pacific region have the highest number of people in modern slavery and Arab states have the highest prevalence.

Researchers found that the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the rise in forced labor around the world. Disruptions in income led to greater indebtedness, the report stated, which facilitated a “rise in debt bondage among some workers lacking access to formal credit channels.” Some families were forced to provide their own children as forced labor workers.

Increased demand for personal protective equipment during the pandemic was linked to reports of forced labor. Roughly 400,000 individuals were trapped aboard what were termed “floating prisons” after governments refused to let workers disembark after ships returned to ports. Researchers say that during the pandemic there were reports of workers — mostly female — forced to work extra hours without overtime pay.

“COVID-19 created a ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women, which some studies have linked to an increased risk of trafficking,” the report says.

“Modern slavery is the antithesis of sustainable development. Yet, in 2022, it continues to underpin our global economy,” says Grace Forrest, Founding Director of Walk Free. “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.”

The ILO has proposed recommendations to end modern slavery, which include:

  • improving and enforcing laws and labour inspections
  • ending state-imposed forced labour
  • stronger measures to combat forced labor and trafficking in business and supply chains
  • extending social protection, and strengthening legal protections, including raising the legal age of marriage to 18 without exception
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