Modern slavery shoots up by 10 million in five years

The eye of a child

Modern slavery is a growing challenge thanks to a mix of armed conflict, climate change and the global pandemic, a new UN report says.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates suggest that 50 million people – or one out of every 150 people alive – are trapped in forced labour or forced marriages.

That is up nearly 10 million on its numbers from five years ago. The ILO said the fact things were getting worse was “shocking”.

“Nothing can justify the persistence of this fundamental abuse of human rights,” said its director general, Guy Ryder.

“We know what needs to be done… an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed. Trade unions, employers’ organizations, civil society and ordinary people all have critical roles to play.”

The UN’s labour organisation is keen to stress that slavery is not confined to poor countries far away from the Western world – more than half of all forced labour happens in wealthier countries in the upper-middle or high-income bracket.

And it counts both forced labour and forced marriage as modern enslavement – both situations where the person cannot leave “because of threats, violence, deception, abuse of power or other forms of coercion”.

“Entrapment in forced labour can last years, while in most cases forced marriage is a life sentence,” the report says.

About 27.6 million people are in forced labour, including 3.3 million children. Of those children, more than half are in commercial sexual exploitation.

Another 22 million people are in forced marriages – more than two-thirds of them women – and many victims are under 15 when the marriage takes place.

The fact that things are getting worse is down to a complex mix of “compounding crises”, the report says – all of which come together to increase poverty and heighten the risk of enslavement.

The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, caused major disruption to people’s income, leading to more debt – which could be leveraged into forced labour in some cases. The ILO says the pandemic has led to an increase in “extreme global poverty” for the first time in 20 years.

War and armed conflict likewise lead to dire circumstances, or the recruitment of children to work or serve as child soldiers; while climate change has forced people to leave their homes and become migrants – immediately placing them at greater risk.

The report calls for an international effort to gather resources – and genuine intent – to fix the problem.

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