The growth of precarious employment has helped modern slavery to spread…

Stories about “modern slavery” seem to be flooding the media right now, particularly in developed countries like the US, Australia and the UK where voluntary sector organizations, charitable trusts and philanthropic institutions proliferate. Despite the fact that Brazil — the last country involved in the transatlantic slave trade* — outlawed slavery over a century ago, “the peculiar institution” (as it was once euphemistically described in the United States) has never gone away. In fact, today it’s probably a more profitable business than ever before. Globalisation has stimulated opportunities for a new slave trade, like the old one deeply entangled with commercial life everywhere and at all levels but made more efficient thanks to the new technologies of transport and communications; a new, modern form of slavery.

Recently, it may have seemed as though the UK is the centre of this new slave trade. In early August, Will Kerr, director of vulnerabilities at the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), was reported as saying that the number of people who could be classified as “modern slaves” across the world was far higher than government figures suggested. In 2016, the UK government estimated there were about 3,800 slaves in the country. According to Kerr, the true figure is “likely [to be] in the tens of thousands.” But his definition of “modern slavery” is a broad one, while the UK figures are based on people-trafficking alone. “The more we look for modern slavery the more we find evidence of the widespread abuse of the vulnerable,” Kerr said. “The growing body of evidence we are collecting points to the scale being far larger than anyone had previously thought.” As if to prove him right, in the week following his statement, telephone calls to the NCA modern slavery hotline doubled.

The UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated that there are 21 million people, including 5.5 million children, in various forms of modern slavery, including forced labour for commercial or military purposes and sexual exploitation. The Washington Post‘s estimate is more than double that figure, at 45 million. According to the Post, citing the Global Slavery Index, “There are more than 45 million children, men and women in slavery today. They are,” says the Post, “a naked 6-year old slave boy on a fishing boat on Ghana’s Lake Volta, a bonded laborer (sic) at a brick kiln who has never left the factory and a 14-year-old girl behind a locked door in a brothel who suffers a dozen customers a day.”

Whatever the exact figure, estimates indicate that half of all slaves worldwide are in Asia, although Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas probably have the highest percentage of modern slaves per head of population. The ILO calculates that 90 percent of slaves are exploited by individuals or companies, and ten percent are forced to work by governments, rebel military groups, or in prisons under conditions that breach ILO standards. Sexual exploitation accounts for about a fifth of all slaves, according to the ILO.

Convictions, no Convictions

Typical of the forms of modern slavery are two cases that hit the headlines in Britain at around the same time as Will Kerr’s statement was released. The day after the statement was publicised, a judge lifted restrictions on reporting and the news emerged that 11 members of a gang in the rural UK county of Lincolnshire, all belonging to the same family, have been convicted of offences including “conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour.”

The Rooney family had been abducting vulnerable people — often people who came to the UK from Eastern Europe, Vietnam or Nigeria — for years, forcing them to live in squalid camps often without running water or basic sanitation and work for little or no pay, with no safety equipment or appropriate clothing, as seasonal farm workers, labourers and building workers. It emerged at one of the four trials of Rooney-family members that one of their victims had been held in conditions of slavery for 26 years, while others had been beaten up or subjected to threats to their lives if they tried to escape. In many cases, the victims were lured with false promises of decent work and accommodation and were controlled with drugs and alcohol while the Rooney family stole their pay and any benefits they received, spending the money on luxury holidays, cosmetic surgery and entertainment.

But this isn’t just about the criminal gangs like the Rooneys. At about the same time as the Rooney verdict, members of three separate criminal groups were convicted on modern slavery charges, after the court sitting in Nottingham heard that they had forced migrants to work through agencies supplying labour to the headquarters of one of the UK’s biggest (and most notorious) businesses, sports clothing retailer Sports Direct.

While there is no suggestion that Sports Direct was instrumental in the exploitation of slave labour, or indeed knew anything about it, the fact is that the contemporary business practices — outsourcing, the spread of precarious employment practices, the growth of low wage employment supported by public welfare programmes, and the globalisation and disaggregation of supply chains — have driven businesses to reject regulation and decent (or perhaps that should be paternalistic) employment practices, and to abandon any high moral standards they might once have aspired to. Companies like Sports Direct have proliferated and expanded thanks to often byzantine tax avoidance strategies and on the backs of grotesquely exploited workers, who may be supplied by local agencies shipping in workers from Eastern Europe on zero-hours contracts, or hidden by subcontractors in sweatshops in the third world.

According to one newspaper report of the Nottingham trials: “the modern-day slave trade has taken root in the UK economy, as big-brand companies have become unwitting users of slave labour.”

The cases in Lincolnshire and Nottingham reveal the conditions necessary for slavery to flourish: a supply of vulnerable people thrown up by growing homelessness, addiction, problem drinking, and long term unemployment; labour outsourcing that breaks the chain of employer responsibility; and the social disintegration of communities and neighbourhoods.

Unite, the UK’s biggest union, has campaigned for years against working conditions at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouses. The union has identified the subcontracting of labour and the deregulation of the labour market as critical factors in the growth of modern slavery. “Big workplaces, which rely on intermediaries and agencies to provide workers, are more open to worker abuse and exploitation,” says Unite’s regional officer Luke Primarolo. And Sports Direct implicitly agreed with this view when a spokesperson described modern slavery as an abuse of employment practice which the company “will not tolerate”, noting that it is “often deeply hidden” and difficult to detect.

But what exactly is modern slavery and why has it suddenly hit the headlines?

What is modern slavery?

According to the organization Anti-Slavery, there are six basic forms of slavery:

  • “Forced labour – any work or services which people are forced to do against their will under the threat of some form of punishment.
  • “Debt bondage or bonded labour – the world’s most widespread form of slavery, when people borrow money they cannot repay and are required to work to pay off the debt, then losing control over the conditions of both their employment and the debt.
  • “Human trafficking – involves transporting, recruiting or harbouring people for the purpose of exploitation, using violence, threats or coercion.
  • “Descent-based slavery – where people are born into slavery because their ancestors were captured and enslaved; they remain in slavery by descent.
  • “Child slavery – child slavery is often confused with child labour, but is much worse. Whilst child labour is harmful for children and hinders their education and development, child slavery occurs when a child’s labour is exploited for someone else’s gain. It can include child trafficking, child soldiers, child marriage and child domestic slavery.
  • “Forced and early marriage – when someone is married against their will and cannot leave the marriage. Most child marriages can be considered slavery.”

Anti-Slavery makes the point that actual cases often involve several forms of slavery. Forced labour, bonded labour, child slavery and human trafficking are often interconnected. A refugee may be required to pay for travel in advance, incurring debts which they are forced to pay off through bonded labour. They cannot escape where refugees seeking asylum are not allowed in law to work, as in the UK. Refugee children may also be forced to undertake illegal work: shrimp-peeling in Thailand, cleaning cars and dog-walking in the UK, prostitution almost anywhere. This kind of slavery is difficult to distinguish from extremely exploitative, but legal, forms of employment. The growth of institutionalised precarity – low-wage, insecure employment characterised by zero-hours contracts or bogus self-employment – has only increased the likelihood of workers sinking into modern slavery, as exemplified by the Rooney cases and the cases involving Sports Direct.

The only way to accurately estimate the numbers of slaves is to count all individual victims regardless of the precise form of their enslavement. We may not have a exact figure for this but, according to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT), we do know “that it affects every region of the world, ranks as the third largest source of income for organized crime (exceeded only by arms and drugs trafficking), and is the fastest growing form of international crime. We also know that it generates tens of billions of dollars in profits each year.”

To fight slavery, we need to spend proportionate sums and act globally. As the US organization  Human Rights First argues “slavery is legal nowhere, yet happens everywhere. If we are to finally eradicate slavery once and for all it will require significant additional resources, as well as sustained cooperation among nations.” In this fight, wrote US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his introduction to the State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (The TIP Report), “International partners are essential to success.”

Human trafficking is the one form of slavery which operates across countries. It also underpins most of the other forms, which rely on the recruitment, capture or abduction of individuals for the purposes of exploitation, and it is probably slavery’s main income generator. Accordingly, in recent years it has become the main focus of anti-slavery activities on a global level. Indeed, in his speech at the launch of the TIP Report, Secretary Tillerson observed that trafficking in persons was “a contemporary manifestation of slavery”. Trafficking is not the same thing as smuggling, where profit is made, if at all, from transportation rather than exploitation. Also — again unlike smuggling — trafficking does not require the transportation of individuals from country to country; people can be trafficked within a country.

The event that spawned the global movement against trafficking and modern slavery was the adoption of the Trafficking Protocol by the United Nations early in 2000. This protocol — formally termed “The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children” — entered into force on 25 December, 2003. Within five years, it had been signed by 117 states, and ratified by 116, out of 193 UN members. By 2017, only 17 UN members had not signed and ratified the protocol.

Critically, the protocol was the first, and remains the only, international legal instrument addressing human trafficking as a crime. It falls under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In 2007, the UN launched a campaigning organisation, UN.GIFT, involving six international organizations: the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The majority of UN.GIFT’s funding came in the form of a grant from the United Arab Emirates.

UN.GIFT was designed as a project with a limited life, and it concluded the active phase of its work in 2015. Its main activities in the eight years from 2007 to 2015 were to promote global cooperation among UN members, create vital resources for the suppression of trafficking and the protection of its victims, and place the issue “high on the global policy agenda”.

There have in the past been a number of national laws that could be applied against the slave trade, but the US was first off the mark with a law specifically targetting traffickers in 2000, shortly after the Trafficking Protocol was adopted by the UN, when President Bill Clinton signed into law the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). In 2013, the TVPA’s status changed. It had already been renamed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act in 2008. In 2012 it was attached as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act, drafted by Vice-President Joe Biden, signed by President Clinton in 1994, and passed by an overwhelming majority in Congress.

VAWA has met resistance from Christian conservatives, such as Concerned Women for America, and right-wing Republicans opposed to what they see as attacks on traditional family values, the promotion of equal rights, and support for abortion and the rights of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals, Native Americans and illegal immigrants.

At the moment (August 2017), there seems to be no specific threat against the TVPA from the Trump administration. For one thing, the UN has explicitly included the fight against modern slavery within the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 in form of Goal 8.7, “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.” There is no sign that the Trump administration will wish to break with the UN. Ivanka Trump, now styled as “Advisor to the President” spoke at the launch of the 2017 TIP report, and Secretary Tillerson, one of the more moderate members of the Trump administration, re-committed the US to the fight against modern slavery and highlighted the role of Senator Bob Corker, Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, who despite generally taking conservative positions was instrumental in formulating the bipartisan End Modern Slavery Initiative Act, intended to help eliminate slavery and human trafficking by establishing a funding mechanism for programmes and projects outside the US.

The End Modern Slavery Act was subsumed into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 (NDAA) and signed into law by President Obama in the very last days of his presidency. In April 2017, the End Modern Slavery Initiative Act morphed into the Program to End Modern Slavery (PEMS), and in May the State Department announced the first PEMS grants invitation. A total of $25 million is available to NGOs, higher education institutions and other organizations in the US or elsewhere designed to attract “innovative proposals … to reduce the prevalence of modern slavery — including the sex trafficking and forced labor (sic) of adults and children, men and women, and transgender individuals — in targeted (sic) populations”.

This sort of thing may be wildly unpopular with the ultraconservatives in the White House, but the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (the TIP Office) will doubtless be happy to use the successful PEMS proposals to help maintain the TVPA’s ranking of states. At present, this relies on partial judgements concerning the efforts made by states to deal with trafficking. In effect, this ranking is certainly based less on hard data than on US foreign policy objectives. Hence the emphasis in Tillerson’s speech at the launch of the 2017 TIP report on North Korea and its use of forced labour, the relegation of China to the lowest level in the ranking (Tier 3) and an ongoing dispute about Cuba’s elevation in 2015 to the level described as Tier 2 (Watch List). (Incidentally, hard data on slavery can be found on the Global Slavery Index website.)

When introducing a measure entitled Trafficking in Persons Report Integrity Act, one of the act’s sponsors, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, issued a press release noting “unwarranted, politically-driven upgrades of countries with deplorable human trafficking records, like Cuba and Malaysia” in the past two TIP reports. Perhaps Rubio is right and the TIP Office’s league tables are about politics at least as much they’re an effective weapon against the global scourge of slavery.

At least one anti-slavery organization, Human United, expressed the same sentiments. “We have serious concerns about this year’s TIP Report which included unjustified upgrades to Burma, Malaysia, and Qatar and a failure to downgrade Thailand,” said David Abramowitz, Humanity United’s managing director.

“According to experts, the exclusion of Burma, Iraq, and Afghanistan from this year’s Child Soldiers list is also unwarranted. In combination, these decisions weaken the TIP Report’s value.

“The United States’ Trafficking in Persons Report is a critical tool in the global fight to end human trafficking, but it is only as effective as it is credible…. Without this credibility, America will lose its ability to persuade other countries to increase their efforts. For the millions of people worldwide living in modern slavery, the loss of US leadership is a truly devastating possibility.”

Interventionism Versus Cooperation

It appears that the US is increasingly concerned to develop an interventionist strategy on the back of its fight against modern slavery. In this respect, the US focuses on a small proportion of the ILO’s estimated ten percent — governments. Barely any effort is taken to address the individuals and companies who effectively enslave men, women and children on a massive scale, except to applaud a relatively tiny number of convictions — about 9,000 worldwide in 2016 — reported by governments. Meanwhile, the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced research showing an increase of around 600 percent in the three years before 2017 in the number of potential sex trafficking victims arriving in Italy by sea, mostly from Nigeria. That makes almost 9,000 potential victims of one type of slavery trafficked over one route in one year.

This is not just an American problem. In the UK, for example, the Modern Slavery Act was signed into law in 2015. It was intended to consolidate previous laws relating to trafficking and slavery, but it only applies to England and Wales and includes no measures specifically relating to offences committed outside of those two countries. Even worse, the law contains no statutory provisions to enforce businesses to take measures against slavery in their supply chains, no provisions to regulate prostitution, no effective victim protection, and no legal protection for foreign workers subject to tied visas effectively forcing them to work for a sponsoring employer. Despite this, the minister responsible at the time, James Brokenshire, said that the act would “send the strongest possible message to criminals that if you are involved in this disgusting trade in human beings, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted and you will be locked up.”

Many organizations and individuals, including human rights groups like Liberty, and numerous parliamentarians and lawyers, have criticised the law as being a UK Home Office vanity project (or one flattering the then Home Secretary, Teresa May), rushed through parliament without incorporating any recommendations from the consultation process and failing to include any measures that might be interpreted, in the words of a report in the Independent, as being “nice to immigrants”. It did, however, include the establishment of an independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, although the role and responsibilities of the Commissioner are unclear. He will advise all UK companies with a turnover of more than £30 million who are supposed to report on their actions with regard to modern slavery in their supply chains. But there are no penalties and no compulsion.

The former Tory MP, Anthony Sheen who advised on the bill and heads an organization called the Human Trafficking Foundation commented that “The bill is wholly and exclusively about law enforcement – but it shouldn’t be enforcement-based, it should be victim-based.”

Back in the US, Rex Tillerson told his audience at the launch of the TIP Report how “the Program to End Modern Slavery will … set about to raise commitments of $1.5 billion in support from other governments and private donors, while developing the capacity of foreign governments and civil society to work to end modern slavery in their own countries”. It sounds like a fantasy but at least Tillerson acknowledged that much trafficking is connected with forced labour. “American consumers and businesses must also recognize they may have an unwitting connection to human trafficking. Supply chains creating many products that Americans enjoy may be utilizing forced labor (sic).” His solution, however, seems less than effective: “The State Department,” he said, “does engage with businesses to alert them to these situations so that they can take actions on their own to ensure that they are not in any way complicit.” That might work if such complicity was made illegal and risked significant sanctions, but that really does seem to be a fantasy.

Global Supply Chains

The issue of global supply chains is of great significance for unions. In the Sports Direct cases, what was being supplied was labour at Sports Direct’s own premises, and this is something that a company could easily monitor if it was concerned to. Governments, too, could implement legislation to regulate the market for labour in their own countries. Notwithstanding the US State Department’s best intentions, even the government of a Tier 1 country enjoying a special relationship with America may simply not wish to impose obligations on companies for fear of being accused of over-regulation.

But at the recent G20 Summit in Hamburg in July 2017, the Leaders’ Declaration addressed the abuses of human rights and labour standards in global supply chains. G20 Labour and Employment Ministers had met a few weeks earlier and formulated a statement for the heads of the world’s leading economies. They committed to “… fostering the implementation of labour, social and environmental standards and human rights” and underlined “the responsibility of businesses to exercise due diligence.” More significantly, the leaders committed to take “immediate and effective measures to eliminate child labour by 2025, forced labour, human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery.”

The General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Sharan Burrow welcomed the G20’s “recognition of workers’ rights in global supply chains”, along with various declarations by the UN, the ILO and the OECD. “Due diligence by all corporations sits at the heart of implementation,” said Burrow, “and now they need to be held accountable for this to ensure decent work.”

The G20 leaders themselves said that they will support access to remedy for victims of human rights abuses, and cited mechanisms such as National Contact Points (NCPs) for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. For the first time, the G20 also committed to encouraging their multinational companies to conclude international framework agreements with global union federations.

While the NCP mechanism provides a possible system for OECD member nations to implement anti-slavery programmes, the problem is that not all NCPs work effectively. According to John Evans, the General Secretary of TUAC, the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, NCPs require “adequate resources as well as trade union and broader stakeholder involvement and oversight.” Evans also argued that the G20 leaders are also committed to support the conclusion of framework agreements between multinational companies and global unions. “This commitment needs to be acted on and monitored,” he said.

A proposed new law in Australia will enforce the scrutiny of supply chains in an attempt “to ensure companies are not complicit” in allowing modern slavery to exist in their supply chains. Yet again it appears that implementation will be the weak point of this legislation. Australia already has laws against forced labour, slavery, “slavery-like practices” and human trafficking, but hitting at supply chains is a particularly thorny problem, and must be well resourced and enjoy the support of businesses, politicians, consumers and trade unions. To date, it doesn’t really seem to have even the wholehearted support of the lawmakers.


More details

Holly Burkhalter, “It’s the 21st century. Yet slavery is alive and well.“, Washington Post, 27 June 2017.

45.8 million people are enslaved across the world“, The Global Slavery Index, 30 May 2016.

ILO statistics.

End modern slavery initiative act“, Human Rights First, 14 January 2016.

Global Slavery Index.

David Abramovitz, “Humanity United response to 2017 TIP report“, Humanity United, 27 June 2017.

Human Trafficking – Background Briefing Note. UN Global Compact.

Humanity United.

Rachel Risoleo, “World day against trafficking in persons“, Human Rights First, 3 August 2017.

Felicity Lawrence, “How big brands including Sports Direct unwittingly used slave labour“, The Guardian, 8 August 2017.

What is modern slavery“, Anti-Slavery.

The trafficking victims protection act“, Wikipedia.

Joint statement, UN.GIFT, 25 March 2015.

Concerned Women for America“, Wikipedia.

Bob Corker, The End Modern Slavery Initiative Act, US Senate.

Modern Slavery Act 2015, Wikipedia.

Modern Slavery Act 2015, UK Government.

Emily Dugan, “Government’s Modern Slavery Bill will ‘fail victims and spare criminals‘”, The Independent, 14 December, 2013.

The G20 leaders declaration“, (PDF) 2017

US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2017, US Department of State, 2017.

Humanity United response to the 2017 TIP Report.

UN Migration agency issues report on arrivals of sexually exploited migrants, chiefly from Nigeria“, International Organization for Migration, 21 July 2017.

* In 1981, Mauritania became the last nation to abolish slavery although the practice was only criminalised in 2007. Today, according to the  blog of the World Policy Institute (18 August 2017), slavery is more prevalent in Mauritania than in any other country.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Gary Herman

Related Articles

Mon Feb 2014 /

Woman set on fire as pain endures in India’s brick kilns

By Andrew Brady I write this article with seething outrage after a report in the Hindustan Times informed the world that a woman worker was ‘allegedly’ set on fire by a brick kiln owner in Uttar Pradesh. The reason – she had the temerity to resist a contractor’s sexual advances in one of India’s brick […]

Read More
Fri Apr 2014 /

Prevention – the first line of defence against Human Trafficking

– By Caroline Robinson Over 20 million people globally are victims of human trafficking and forced labour. In August 2013 the UK Home Secretary declared this issue a personal priority and a draft Modern Day Slavery bill was hastily published by December, outlining the government’s blue-print for the UK’s approach to ending human trafficking. This […]

Read More
Thu Oct 2014 /

Indian migrant workers in the Gulf: we need a coordinated response

The recent shocking treatment of Indian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia highlights the need for a coordinated response to the violation of these workers’ rights. After an Indian construction worker was killed on the job, the company refused to repatriate the body. 41 of his comrades protested against this. They were charged with sedition and […]

Read More