Opinion: Development must tackle an age-old scourge — slavery

In Thailand, migrant fishermen — often victims of trafficking and forced labor — are photographed as part of an International Labour Organization project. Photo by: ILO Asia-Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND

The economist Adam Smith wrote nearly 250 years ago that “the work done by freemen comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves.” Smith rightly recognized that slavery leaves us all worse off in the long run. The denial of a person’s control over where and when they work, and how they spend or invest their wages, reduces productivity and lowers wages — including for other workers. That realization, in part, spurred abolitionism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

And now, despite the fact that an estimated 40 million people were still enslaved in the last few years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, international development efforts are rarely organized around combating modern slavery. New findings, commissioned by the United Kingdom and produced by United Nations University, offer evidence that ending modern slavery can promote economic growth. Ending this practice can also reduce environmental harm and contribute to sustainable development.

The report, “Developing Freedom,” argues that ending modern slavery must be at the heart of international development efforts. It identifies 10 ways in which slavery impedes sustainable development. Slavery’s various impacts, such as worsening inequality and fostering corruption, last through multiple generations.

It is cheaper for us all, in the long run, to rely on labor from the free market than to subsidize slavery.

Ending modern slavery will unleash significant economic growth and social development. International Monetary Fund researchers have estimated that ending child marriage — just one aspect of modern slavery, forced labor, and human trafficking — would lead to a 1.05 percentage point increase in real gross domestic product in emerging and developing economies.

Some countries have already recognized the connection between modern slavery and sustainable development. Ending modern slavery by 2030 is target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Since 2017, dozens of countries, including the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia, have also answered to a call to action to end forced labor, modern slavery, and human trafficking. This initiative calls for ending modern slavery to become “a priority” for multilateral development action.

And it is not just target 8.7; “Developing Freedom” finds that anti-slavery efforts can contribute to two-thirds of all SDG targets. However, few countries organize their development efforts to target and reduce modern slavery. Just $12 per enslaved person was spent in official development assistance annually between 2000 and 2017.

Coordinated action is needed along global value chains to protect and maximize the economic agency of people vulnerable to enslavement and trafficking. This means protecting workers from the pandemic’s worst impacts while also promoting education, skills development, and entrepreneurialism.

The “Developing Freedom” study also explores how anti-slavery efforts in six different global value chains have contributed to development.

In Brazil, government efforts have freed over 55,000 people from enslavement since 1995 and have generated innovations tying development finance access to sustainable supply chain management. The International Labour Organization, development partners, and private sector organizations have also helped foster labor market reforms in Qatar, Thailand, and Uzbekistan, offering greater protection and support for workers’ agency.

These examples also point to the importance of using trade policy, public procurement, lending, and investment frameworks to reward businesses that address modern slavery — rather than subsidizing those that tolerate or rely on it. Private sector partnerships will be crucial, and development finance organizations have an important leadership role in this work. Anti-slavery efforts will need to be at the center of capital markets’ efforts to address the environmental, social, and governance impacts of investment and lending decisions.

Putting anti-slavery efforts at the heart of development work will be a “win-win-win.” Victims and survivors of modern slavery will win from the increased attention to their plight and support for their recovery. The communities and countries in which they live will win, with gains in productivity, innovation, good governance, and sustainability. And business will win from an increased resilience to a strengthened social license.

Fighting modern slavery is not just the right thing to do; in a world focused increasingly on the environmental and social footprint of business, it is also the smart thing to do. Ultimately, as Adam Smith recognized, this is as much an economic proposition as a moral one. It is cheaper for us all, in the long run, to rely on labor from the free market than to subsidize slavery.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • James Cockayne

    James Cockayne is a nonresident senior fellow at the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on the New Agenda for Equity and Social Justice.