50 million people worldwide are trapped in slavery

Fifty million people were living in modern slavery in 2021, according to the latest Global Estimates of Modern Slavery. Of these people, 28 million were in forced labor and 22 million were trapped in forced marriage. 

The number of people in modern slavery has risen significantly in the last five years. 10 million more people were in modern slavery in 2021 compared to 2016 global estimates. Women and children remain disproportionately vulnerable. 

Modern slavery occurs in almost every country in the world, and cuts across ethnic, cultural and religious lines. More than half (52 per cent) of all forced labor and a quarter of all forced marriages can be found in upper-middle income or high-income countries.

Forced labor

Most cases of forced labor (86 per cent) are found in the private sector. Forced labor in sectors other than commercial sexual exploitation accounts for 63 per cent of all forced labor, while forced commercial sexual exploitation represents 23 per cent. Almost four out of five of those in forced commercial sexual exploitation are women or girls. State-imposed forced labor accounts for 14 per cent. 

Almost one in eight of all those in forced labor are children (3.3 million). More than half of these are in commercial sexual exploitation.

Forced marriage

An estimated 22 million people were living in forced marriage on any given day in 2021. This indicates an increase of 6.6 million since the 2016 global estimates. 

The true incidence of forced marriage, particularly involving children aged 16 and younger, is likely far greater than current estimates can capture; these 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. 

Forced marriage is closely linked to long-established patriarchal attitudes and practices and is highly context specific. The overwhelming majority (more than 85 per cent) was driven by family pressure. Although two-thirds (65 per cent) are found in Asia and the Pacific, when regional population size is considered, the prevalence is highest in the Arab States, with 4.8 people out of every 1,000 in the region.

Migrant workers

Migrant workers are more than three times more likely to be in forced labor than non-migrant adult workers. While labor migration has a largely positive effect on individuals, households, communities and societies, this finding demonstrates how migrants are particularly vulnerable to forced labor and trafficking, whether because of irregular or poorly governed migration, or unfair and unethical recruitment 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.” 

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 labor 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.” 

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.”

Ending modern slavery

The report proposes a number of recommended actions which, taken together and swiftly, would mark significant progress towards ending modern slavery. 

They include: improving and enforcing laws and labor inspections; ending state-imposed forced labor; 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. 

Other measures include addressing the increased risk of trafficking and forced labor for migrant workers, promoting fair and ethical recruitment, and greater support for women, girls and vulnerable individuals.

Photo credit: Pexels/ Jenna Hamra

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