Jacqueline Joudo Larsen of Walk Free Foundation and the ILO's Michaelle De Cock describe how they pulled together the first definitive data set on the 40 million people enslaved in the global economy

Over the past few weeks we have seen continued stories on our screens and in our newspapers of people – mostly women – in modern slavery here in the UK. They typically face challenges few of us can even imagine: such as having been sent here by force, away from their families and the comforts of home, and being forced into a life of servitude, labour and sexual exploitation. Yet for every story we read, many hundreds or thousands go unreported.

A vital first step in eradicating the scourges of modern slavery and child labour is to understand the scale of the problem. Only when we understand how many people these impact, and where, can we design long-term solutions to this terrible issue.

To gain some sense of the challenges we face, the Walk Free Foundation and the International Labour Organisation last month launched the 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery and Child Labour at the UN General Assembly, New York. This means that for the first time we have consolidated data that can act as a benchmark for policymakers and others. This will help us to track efforts to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 8.7: to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking by 2030 and eliminate child labour by 2025.

The figures show that around the world there are 40.3 million men, women and children who are victims of modern slavery. That is equivalent to the entire population of Canada, more than six times the number of people who work in the entire US financial industry, or the combined population of the world’s two most populous cities, Beijing and New Delhi.

Credit: Shutterstock Inc.

They also show that forced labour, imposed by employers in private businesses and by states to 25 million people, accounts for nearly two-thirds of all modern slavery globally. Of these, most victims are forced to work in the private sector. That means they were being forced to work under threat or coercion as domestic workers, on construction sites, in clandestine factories, or on farms and fishing boats.

Maybe surprisingly, most victims of forced labour (58%) in the private sector are female. Male victims outnumbered females in the agricultural, construction and manufacturing sectors but the largest overall group of victims is found in domestic work, which is dominated by women. In fact, women account for 71% of all modern slavery numbers globally, which is largely due to forced sexual exploitation and forced marriages.

Definitional complexity and its clandestine nature make modern slavery difficult to measure. To counteract this, and with no single source providing suitable and reliable data on all forms of modern slavery, Walk Free Foundation and the ILO have used a methodology that combines in-country research with pre-existing data on victims of trafficking who have been assisted by the International Organization for Migration. The core element of the methodology is information collected through household surveys in 48 countries. The surveys involved face to face interviews with more than 71,000 people in 53 local languages.

In tandem, data sets from 105 countries were analysed for the child labour number - with 24 of the data sets derived from National Child Labour Surveys implemented by the ILO, in collaboration with national bureaus of statistics. The data sets cover all the world’s regions and more than 1.1 billion children, about 70% of the global population of children aged five to 17.

Migrant fishing workers (Credit: Shutterstock Inc.)

In total, the ILO estimates that 151.6 million children, one in 10 globally, are in child labour. They are involved in work that is hazardous, demands too many hours, or is performed by children who are too young. The good news is that this number is down from 2012, but the current pace of change means we won’t achieve the target to eliminate it by 2025.

Some children are in a situation of forced labour. Children are particularly vulnerable, and represent one in four victims of modern slavery in 2016. Children account for 21% of victims of sexual exploitation, 18% of victims of forced labour, and 7% of people forced to work by state authorities.

We all have a responsibility to act on these issues. These children were forced to work by private organisations and by state authorities. In many cases, the products they made and the services they provided ended up in seemingly legitimate commercial channels. Forced labourers produced some of the food we eat and the clothes we wear. They have also cleaned the buildings in which many of us live or work.

Children also account for one third of the 15.4 million victims of forced marriage. One is Shahida, a 13-year-old Afghani girl who was forced to marry a 45-year-old man. After her father had arranged it, Shahida moved in with her husband. Very unhappy, she ran back home, where her father turned her away. Refusing to return to her husband, Shahida’s father dug a deep hole which he forced her into and began covering her. Luckily, neighbours heard her cries for help and were able to help her escape. But not every girl is rescued.

Consumers, the business community and government all need to play their part in ensuring we eliminate all forms of modern slavery and child labour. This must be driven by holding individuals, corporations and politicians to account, taking clear and systematic action, and, most importantly, by lthe inspiring stories of survivors, who remind us of our collective responsibility. By understanding the scale of the problem, and harnessing the power of data, we can begin to eradicate the epidemic of modern slavery and child labour.

Jacqueline Joudo Larsen is senior research manager at Walk Free Foundation, and Michaelle De Cock is a senior researcher for the International Labour Organisation.


SDG8  Child labour  Human rights 

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