UK pledges 40M pounds to 'modern slavery' as experts search for common definition

Women gather in a community group to learn about travelling abroad safely. Every year millions of women in Asia are trafficked into modern slavery. Photo by: Anna Dubuis / DFID / CC BY-NC

LONDON — The U.K. secretary of state for international development pledged 40 million pounds ($54 million) to combat “modern slavery” on Friday in a move celebrated by many in the aid community — although some worried that the issue, which has also been a focus of U.K. domestic policy, still lacks a coherent and internationally sanctioned definition.

Announcing one of the earliest pledges of her tenure as aid chief ahead of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on Saturday, Penny Mordaunt said: “It is time to eradicate this shameful practice. Slavery, anywhere, must not be tolerated in the 21st century, and our work to stamp out this practice abroad will support our effort to end slavery in the U.K. This is a long-term challenge and others must follow our lead.”

“Modern slavery” is a term that can refer to human trafficking, forced labor, or forced marriage; however, there are currently multiple definitions in use. The Sustainable Development Agenda under Goal 8 calls for countries to “take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking.”

In 2015, the U.K. Parliament passed the world’s first Modern Slavery Act, committing to a cross-government effort to crack down on domestic and international supply chains that benefit from modern slavery. Australia and Canada are now considering similar legislation.

DFID officials told media during a briefing on Thursday that the department is working to develop an internal definition.

The new funding is part of a 75 million pound ($100 million) commitment of aid spending on modern slavery announced by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, and represents a doubling of previous funding levels. DFID officials confirmed that 35 million pounds are yet to be allocated.

Of the total, 20 million pounds ($27 million) will be spent through the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, a U.S.-based nonprofit focused on grantmaking and strategy coherence to combat human trafficking in the garment, fisheries, and construction sectors. The organization also received $25 million in new funding from the U.S. State Department in September.

Another 13 million pounds ($17.5 million) will go toward the second phase of the Work in Freedom program, funded by the Department for International Development to prevent trafficking and forced labor among women migrant workers from South Asia, which has the highest prevalence of forced labor globally. The program was launched jointly in 2013 by DFID, the International Labour Organization, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Finally, the announcement confirmed 7 million pounds ($9.5 million) of funding that had already been earmarked to combat human trafficking in Nigeria through DFID, alongside another 5 million pounds ($6.7 million) from the Home Office. Internationally, Nigeria is not usually considered a priority country for modern slavery, ranking 23rd out of 57 on the Global Slavery Index, but is a key source of human trafficking victims to the U.K.

At least 3 million pounds of the DFID funding for Nigeria will go to creating alternative job opportunities for potential victims of trafficking in order to deter them from “pursuing irregular and dangerous forms of migration, which often lead to victims falling into sexual slavery, forced or bonded labor,” according to a DFID press release.

The remaining 4 million pounds will help strengthen work to support victims of trafficking through six safe houses and training for counselors.

The Home Office did not respond to a query as to whether the 5 million pounds it is contributing to the effort would be classified as official development assistance.

Tackling modern slavery

About 40 million people worldwide are thought to be trapped in modern slavery, 70 percent of whom are women and girls, according to data from the U.N. Of this, approximately 25 million are trapped in forced labor, including in domestic work, construction, or agriculture; while others are trapped in forced marriages or the sex trade. Countries in Africa and Asia have the highest prevalence rates, although researchers say levels could be much higher in other regions where the data is limited, including the Arab states and the Americas.

In the U.K., 13,000 people are thought to be victims of modern slavery, but the true figure is likely to be higher, experts have said.

Mordaunt stressed the dual purpose of the funds, saying in a statement that: “The U.K. is stepping up efforts at home and abroad to combat the crimes of human trafficking, forced labor, and abuse, with over 40 million people estimated to be modern day slaves.”

“The support pledged today will address slavery and trafficking in countries with a high prevalence of these crimes in South Asia, and others such as Nigeria, which are also source countries for trafficking to the U.K.,” the statement read.

During the UNGA meetings, Prime Minister May issued “a statement of intent through which our shared vision and values can be realised,” and called on world leaders to commit to ending modern slavery. “If we’re to meet our ambition to eradicate forced labor, and end modern slavery and human trafficking by 2030, we know we have a long way to go,” she said. Since then, 40 countries have endorsed May’s “Call to Action.”

Houtan Homayounpour, technical specialist on forced labour at the International Labor Organization, told Devex that “May has managed to raise a great deal of visibility; the call to action that she led, getting many member states to sign up and support it has been really helping move things forward.”

“We have been dealing with this issue, as you can imagine, for many years, so when you have a head of state that really makes it her business to raise the profile of the issue, it is really music to our ears,” he said.

But what does it mean?

There is currently no common definition of “modern slavery,” which has so far been defined independently by the governments and institutions using it.

“It’s a tricky one,” Homayounpour told Devex. “There is no international instrument that defines modern slavery. We have an international instrument that defines slavery, we have one that defines forced labor, we have one that defines human trafficking, but nothing that specifically defines modern slavery.”

Homayounpour explained that the term, which emerged relatively recently, has helped raise the profile of labor issues, but added that whether it encompasses forced labor, human trafficking, and even forced marriage depends largely on the country or organization.

Michaelle de Cock, senior statistician at the ILO, added that the organization tries to ensure some consistency between the definitions operationally, but that “it is the right of member states” to choose their own definitions and terminology.

ILO is part of Alliance 8.7, which also includes U.N. agencies and NGOs. The group’s report, Global Estimates, offers a broad statistical picture of two issues: child labor and modern slavery. In order to compile data on modern slavery, the alliance uses the phrase as an umbrella term encompassing both forced labor and forced marriage.

“We came back at the data level to the definition of forced labor as per ILO, and the definition of forced marriage as per U.N. conventions, and all together, we decided we could use the umbrella of modern slavery,” said de Cock.

ILO hopes that this will become a definition that “many stakeholders and countries can accept, despite the lack of international definition,” she said, adding that next October the ILO will submit a new statistical standard and guidelines for measuring modern slavery at the International Conference of Labor Statisticians in Geneva, which the U.K. will also attend.

“Of course this is for measurement only, but then we hope that becomes the standard, and there is then one way recognized by the international community about how it should be measured,” she said.

By creating a common method for measuring modern slavery, de Cock said, stakeholders and development implementers will begin to scale up the new definition.

“The first step on any survey on any topic is to agree on what will be measured and how it will be measured,” she said. “We have already done a few pilot surveys in more than 20 countries, and we see the impact of the work on statistics, which goes already beyond the statistics themselves.”

Fiona David, executive director of global research at the Walk Free Foundation, which runs the Global Slavery Index, added that the report’s definition encompasses “commonalities across the concepts of forced labor, human trafficking, and slavery. Essentially, modern slavery refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.”

A working definition

The most important thing, Homayounpour said, is understanding how to define modern slavery operationally, both to better understand the problem at the national level, but also in order to “have a baseline from which to measure our progress toward fighting the phenomenon.”

Homayounpour said the British government has made and is making great strides against human trafficking and forced labor, regardless of the term they use.

“May has managed to raise a great deal of visibility. Her call to action that she led, getting many member states to sign up and support [the cause], has been really helping move things forward,” he said. He added that the U.K.’s example in passing the Modern Slavery Act 2015 has encouraged other countries to consider following suit.

Asked whether donors should focus only on those countries with the highest prevalence or on others — such as the case of Nigeria — de Cock pointed out that donors and countries often prioritize differently.

“When [the ILO] decide to work in a country, it’s based on a variety of criteria, but the main one is the willingness of the state to make a change,” she said.

“We provide technical support, we target the most vulnerable people, and the first stage is often to do some specific research to understand how those people have been trapped in slavery — how did that take place? By which mechanism? Who is most at risk? — so that our interventions are based on evidence. The way the U.K. government works is totally in line with this,” she said.

And while there are efforts underway to find a common definition, Homayounpour said the debate is likely to continue.

“I have to be very honest, there are many terms out there, and definitions have always been a very sensitive issue with different countries, U.N. agencies, and different NGOs,” he said, “so that will continue.”

Reporting was contributed by Sophie Edwards

Update, Dec. 5: This article was amended to clarify that the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery is a grant-making organization.

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

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