Empowering partnerships to tackle modern slavery

A family of bonded laborers in Rajhena, Nepal. Modern slavery is considered the world's fastest-growing illicit industry with an estimated $150 billion of illegal profits each year. Photo by: Pradip Shakya / International Labor Organization / CC BY-NC-ND

Ever wondered whether the things you own were made or rendered in an ethical manner? Or whether the people involved in the production and supply chain of these products and services were properly treated and not forced or trafficked?

The International Labor Organization estimates that more than 21 million people are globally enslaved, while the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation report that 15 million more are suffering from the same condition — this means 1 in every 200 people worldwide are enslaved. And they are present in almost every industry in the economy. These include domestic work, hotel and restaurant services, farm work, factory production, fishing, and sex work, among others.

Slavery has been a rampant problem for centuries and modern slavery — the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force for the purpose of exploitation, usually involving money — continues largely unabated, despite efforts by several organizations and multilateral institutions to address the issue.

And is it not difficult to see why the growth of this problem is difficult to stunt.

A report by professional services firm Deloitte Consulting LLP and Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Free the Slaves said that estimated global profits from slavery is around $150 billion per year. This makes it the “world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise and the second largest illicit industry behind drugs.”

With the large amount of money involved and its huge potential for profit — given its “low-risk and high-gain” nature — the incentive for perpetrators to proliferate the illegal practice persists, said ILO.

“The very persistence and even growth of modern day slavery indicates both the problem’s complexity and its resistance to many of the initiatives currently in place, so it is not one nor the other but all of the issues — as well as the connectedness of the ecosystem,” Sean Morris, a principal of Deloitte Consulting LLP and co-author of the report, told Devex.

Addressing the issue

The challenges in addressing this issue, however, remain the same. There is a lack of data on slavery, there are limited resources from stakeholders to support the cause, and governments continue to fall short of enacting laws to fight slavery, making the policy environment challenging.

There is also the issue of a lack of proper knowledge among the general public of what modern slavery is and what constitutes a situation to be classified as slavery. Morris shared that “without a standard lexicon with which to discuss modern slavery, activists struggle for clarity and perspective as they try to tackle a full spectrum of symptoms and causes.”

And this is true in most cases, especially in the rural areas where people are not aware that slavery is already happening or knowledgeable enough to identify the practice as slavery.

While the prevailing mindset is to seek a “silver bullet” to address modern slavery, Deloitte and Free the Slaves suggested that stakeholders should instead “aim to make incremental steps to improve the status quo” — something that groups on the ground should be equipped and empowered to do.

The two organizations involved in producing the report have also come up with a relatively simple solution — at least in principle — to address a complicated issue: empowered partnerships through a “freedom ecosystem”.

The ecosystem is composed of diverse network of actors, with the “shared goal of removing the conditions that allow slavery to persist and empowering slavery’s victims and survivors to own their personal path to freedom.”

While partnerships are today a key component in almost any development endeavor, having an empowered one is essential when addressing modern slavery because of the complex nature of the issue. Morris said that one obstacle to solving the problem is that stakeholders are acting in isolation, making the “need for better collaboration” nonnegotiable.

“There must be acknowledgment that progress has been limited; slavery persists, in part, due to a tapestry of social, political and economic challenges,” he said. “Modern slavery manifests in many forms as diverse as the communities it plagues, targeting individual populations and societal vulnerabilities in unique ways.”

Central to the freedom ecosystem’s strategies is a simple “playbook” or a table that shows what each stakeholder — businesses, conveners, funders, influencers, labor organizers, policy makers and enforcers, researchers, service providers, and concerned citizens — can do, outlining several tactics to address the challenges.

The report had the following suggestions: governments should enact and, more importantly, enforce policies to address slavery; businesses should have a standard procedure in ensuring that their employees are not from trafficking or slavery syndicates; organizations and funders should provide technical, financial and advocacy assistance; and concerned citizens should educate themselves on causes and symptoms of slavery and help report instances in their communities.

“At the end of the day, it is all about the people currently suffering that we need to stay focused on,” Morris concluded. “All parts of the freedom ecosystem need to come together, collaborate, communicate, and stay focused on eradicating slavery.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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