By Matija Šerić
In the 21st century, where human rights are seemingly at a high level, paradoxically, modern slavery is still present all over the planet, hidden in the shadow of the great achievements of humanity.
Although traditional slavery was formally banned in most of the world back in the 19th century, various forms of forced labor, merciless exploitation of workers, sexual slavery and human trafficking survive and, moreover, experience an increase, thus posing a serious challenge to the international community. Modern slavery appears in almost every country and it crosses ethnic, cultural and religious barriers without much question.
50 million slaves in 2023
In May of last year, the international human rights group that fights for the abolition of modern slavery, “Walk Free”, published the Global Slavery Index, which provides frightening data. Since its last report in 2018, the 2023 report estimates that an additional 10 million people have fallen victim to modern slavery, bringing the total number of people living in slavery to 50 million.
Of those 50 million people who are deprived of their freedom, 28 million of them are subjected to forced labor while 22 million live in forced marriages. Every fourth enslaved person is a child, while women and girls make up 54% of the enslaved. Experts from the “Walk Free” organization claim that there was an increase in numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic, the worsening of climate change, the growth of conflicts and the increase in consumerism in the world. At the same time, they point out that the growth of slavery is the result of the failure of national governments and the leaders of large multinational companies because both groups did not recognize the problem and act.
Definition of modern slavery
This organization describes modern slavery as: “a set of specific legal terms including forced labour, debt slavery, forced marriage and practices similar to slavery, and human trafficking. Although modern slavery is not defined by law, it is used as an umbrella term that draws attention to the similarities in these legal concepts.
Modern slavery is a hidden crime that affects all countries of the world. We find it in many industries, including clothing, mining and agriculture, and in many contexts, from private homes to settlements for internally displaced people and refugees. Modern slavery affects all of us, from the food we consume to the goods we buy.”
Worrying situation and dangerous trends
Unsurprisingly, countries with poor human rights records lead the ranks of modern slavery. From the first to the tenth place, the countries with the highest level of slavery per capita are: North Korea, Eritrea, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tajikistan, UAE, Russia, Afghanistan and Kuwait. However, when countries are judged by numbers alone, the world’s largest democracy, India, has the most people trapped in modern slavery, followed by China, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, Bangladesh and the US.
The authors of the report point out that six of those ten countries are members of the elite club of the 20 most developed countries in the world, the G20. It is estimated that these countries (India, China, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey, USA) together annually export goods worth 468 billion dollars that are potentially produced by forced labor. These goods include electronics, machinery, clothing, palm oil and solar panels. The figure is $100 million higher than the last report in 2018. “From the cotton on the shirt on your back, to the phone in your hand, to the solar panels we all want to put on our roofs, there is a trace of extreme exploitation of modern slavery in our world of tens of millions of people” , said Grace Forrest, founder of Walk Free.
In the past five years, four more countries (Australia, France, Germany and Norway) have introduced modern slavery laws that force major companies to examine their supply chains and eliminate slavery when found. An additional 15 countries have criminalized human trafficking, bringing the total to 137, and nearly 150 countries now have modern action plans against slavery, the report said. Although there has been some progress, global crises have forced millions more into slave labor. For example, the spike in demand for medical products during the pandemic, combined with the shutdown of many businesses and sudden job losses, created an environment conducive to worker exploitation.
The difficult economic situation has forced some families to send their children to work or sell their daughters into child marriages, in order to earn money and have one less mouth to feed. War conflicts forced many people to leave their homes and seek their fortune as refugees in new countries where they became victims of human traffickers.
Types of slavery
The most important types of modern slavery are: forced labor, human trafficking, sexual abuse, child enslavement, forced marriage, hereditary slavery, unbearable work in global supply chains, work in quarries and mines, and digital slavery. People are often forced to work under threats, exposed to mental and physical violence, or are restricted or deprived of their freedom.
This form of slavery often involves working in harsh conditions with little or no compensation. Workers do not have the freedom to leave their jobs because they will not receive a salary that, although miserable, is the property of the employer until the end of the agreed period, or they have to repay their debt to the employer through hard work, or they are migrant workers whose documents are with the employer. Most often, it happens in agriculture,construction and the textile industry. 86% of cases of forced labor occur in private companies.
Migrants are particularly vulnerable to forced labor and human trafficking, whether due to irregular or poorly managed migration or unfair and unethical employment practices. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), migrant workers are more than three times more likely to be in forced labor than other non-migrant workers. It is striking that more than half (52%) of all forced labor takes place in upper-middle or high-income countries.
Exploitation of women and children
Human traffickers falsely recruit workers by offering them tempting and interesting jobs, while in reality they want to deprive them of their freedom to do hard manual work. Sexual abuse involves forcing individuals to participate in sexual activities without their consent, such as forced prostitution, sex slave trade, or forced marriage. 4 out of 5 sexually exploited persons are women.
Children are a particularly vulnerable group, exposed to forced labor or sexual exploitation. Children often work in clothing and shoe factories, in the fields, but they are also sometimes involved in wars and armed conflicts as cannon fodder. Every eighth person who is forced to work is also a child under 18 years of age. Many of the children who work in Turkish textile factories are immigrants who fled Syria with their families. They usually work 8 to 12 hour shifts, 6 or 7 days a week for only $15 a day.
Forced marriage refers to a situation where people are forced into marriage without their consent, often as a result of family pressure or economic dependence. Forced marriages often involve children who cannot give their consent but are forced into marriage by their parents or a third party. The vast majority of forced marriages, more than 85%, are prompted by family pressure.
Although about two-thirds (65%) of forced marriages occur in Asia and the Oceania region, when the population sizes of the regions are taken into account, the rate of forced marriages is highest in the Arab states where 4.8 people out of every 1,000 in the region are in a forced marriage. A quarter of all forced marriages take place in upper-middle or high-income countries. Hereditary slavery occurs in some societies, especially in certain parts of Africa, where it can be passed down from generation to generation.
People who come from slave families inherit the status of slaves, even though such practices violate international human rights laws. It is often about the fact that the father, the head of the family, had to borrow some money, which he has to repay through forced labor. Such debt repayment is usually lifelong and passed down from generation to generation.
Slavery in the name of profit
Slavery can exist within global supply chains of certain goods, where workers, often in developing countries, can be exposed to poor working conditions and low wages without being able to leave their jobs. Large multinational corporations are moving their factories to countries such as China, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh due to cheap labor. The cheapness of labor often means that workers do not have the right to dignity – to take a break and eat hot meal, no unpaid overtime.
At the same time, workers cannot give up their jobs because of the living costs of supporting their families. When working in mines and quarries, workers are very often exposed to difficult working conditions for low wages and may suffer punishments from employers if there is a lack of productivity or rebellion. Digital slavery is manifested in ICT technologies where workers have to work long hours, have low wages and are not allowed to quit. Some of the big world companies that, according to sources, use slave labor are Coca-Cola, Nestle, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Zara, H&M, Adidas, Puma, Nike, Nissan, Toyota and others.
With 2.6 million people in forced labor (every 10th person), North Korea is the world’s leading country in modern slavery. It the only country in the world that has not explicitly criminalized any form of modern slavery. The state is the main initiator of slavery, unlike most states where the slavery is initiated by private companies. Human exploitation takes many different forms in the DPRK, such as compulsory participation in grueling labor campaigns called “battles” that can last up to a hundred days. Children are also forced to work in agriculture. Refusal to participate in such work can result in punishments. Unemployment is also punishable by imprisonment in a labor camp for three months or up to three years.
In numerous cases, workers had to pay to be hired just to avoid prison, while turning to black market trade to survive. The conditions in the North Korean prison system correspond to those of slaves. North Korean women face the risk of being trafficked and sold as brides to China. Government officials force women into sexual slavery. On many occasions, North Korean migrants in China and elsewhere have had to send most of their earnings back home to help sustain the Kim regime. United Nations reports have listed slavery among the crimes against humanity occurring in the “hermit kingdom”. Revenue from North Korean slave labor is diverted to finance and develop North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs.
In Eritrea, 90 people per 1000 are subjected to slavery. The Eritrean Research Institute for Policy and Strategy (ERIPS) notes that, historically, “the Eritrean government has made minimal efforts to prevent human trafficking and has continued to subject its citizens to forced labor by forcing them under penalty of indefinite or otherwise compulsory military service and citizen militia.”
To be born in Eritrea under the rule of totalitarian President Isaias Afwerki is to risk a life of slavery. Afwerki’s regime even tried to profit from the sale of children in the past. The situation has worsened in recent years as Afwerki sent not only Eritrean men and children to Ethiopia’s conflict-ridden Tigray province, but also forced several thousand Somali men to fight in Tigray as part of a deal between him and Somali President Mohamed Farmaaj.
In Mauritania, 32 people per 1000 live as slaves. It is precisely the country that was among the last to abolish slavery. Mauritania serves as the border between the Arab and Arab-Berber peoples of North and West Africa. Unfortunately, although Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 and criminalized it twice in 2007 and 2015, modern slavery still exists. Penalties for slavery range from 10 to 20 years, but few are convicted.
Since the criminalization of slave ownership, only a few slave owners have been sentenced to long prison terms. In Mauritania, slavery has the so-called movable form, in which people are considered legal property and can be owned, bought and sold. Enslaved people are retained on a hereditary basis, with their children also considered the property of the enslaver. As a result, the enslavers, who are predominantly Arab-Berbers or Arabs, usually force the enslaved people to do housework, keep livestock and work the land. Unfortunately, enslaved people in Mauritania are also often subjected to sexual and physical abuse by their masters and sometimes with children born (the father is a slave owner) remain in slavery for life.
In Saudi Arabia, there are 21 enslaved people per 1000 inhabitants. The Saudi monarchy is known to be one of the biggest violators of human rights, which is not surprising since it follows the Wahhabi legal school of Islam, which is very rigorous. In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, a legal framework known as the kafala system defines the relationship between immigrant workers and their employers. In the kafala system, the government grants individuals or companies sponsorship licenses that they use to hire foreign labor. These permits give employers control over the legal status of their employees. Economic growth in the Arab Gulf countries has spurred the implementation of this system, and many argue that it benefits local businesses and spurs development.
Unfortunately, the kafala system is notorious for encouraging abuse of workers due to the unlimited power of state-empowered sponsors. Workers must obtain the sponsor’s permission to change workplaces or work locations, terminate employment, enter and exit the country, and are often subject to harsh daily rules set by sponsors. For example if the worker leaves the place of employment without permission, his sponsor has the legal right to terminate his legal status, which can result in imprisonment or deportation. Abuses include living in unsanitary conditions, starvation, overwork and imprisonment.
Precisely because of its characteristics, many analysts call the kafala system another name for modern slavery. In similar conditions, 6,500 foreign workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka who were building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup lost their lives in Qatar.
The fight against modern slavery requires cooperation at the global level. The key is to enforce stricter laws and apply them consistently in order to punish offenders and discourage them from committing crimes again. However, this is not enough. Education is essential to raise awareness of this problem, both among potential victims and among consumers who often unwittingly support a supply chain that includes forced labor by purchasing products from reputable brands.
Civil society organizations play a key role in providing support to victims, but also in calling on authorities and corporations to take responsibility. It is important to work on improving working conditions, promoting fair wages, strengthening workers’ rights, and encouraging sustainable but above all humane, morally and ethically acceptable practices in business. Ultimately, solving the problem of modern slavery requires a comprehensive approach that includes legislative measures, education, support for victims and changes in the political and economic structures of states and international organizations. Only through joint efforts can we build a world in which all workers have the right to freedom, dignity and well-paid work regardless of their origin and the type of work they do.