An activist from the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body holds a placard during a protest urging the Immigration Department to review its accommodation and visa polices for foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong in 2018. Photo: AFP
Inside Out
by David Dodwell
Inside Out
by David Dodwell

‘Modern slavery’ can best be prevented by focusing on economic growth and education, not lofty UN goals

  • ‘Modern slavery’ is terrible, but practices such as forced labour and forced marriage have existed for centuries and hoping to end them is misguided
  • Our best bet is to stay alert, develop practices to minimise harm and work on economic growth, good education for everyone and reducing poverty
One of the worst but least discussed side-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is the global surge in forced labour and forced marriage. A new report by the UN says there were around 49.6 million people worldwide trapped in one or the other in 2021 – up by more than 9 million since its last global study in 2016 and accounting for one in every 150 people worldwide.
The United Nations calls these the two main forms of “ modern slavery”. I struggle to work out what is “modern” about them, but it is easy to understand the concern that the problems are getting worse despite decades of work to purge us of these dark, heavily criminalised corners of the world.
The past three years have provided a perfect storm for these scourges to thrive: a combination of the pandemic, armed conflict in countries across the world and poverty-induced migration arising from conflict and climate change. In many countries, civic infrastructure has collapsed, joblessness has surged, poverty and indebtedness have risen and education has been disrupted.

The World Bank says an extra 75 million to 95 million people are now living in extreme poverty, reversing three decades of progress. Since poverty is a key driver of both forced labour and forced marriage, the authors of the UN report fear that a sharp increase in “modern slavery” will be a lasting legacy of the pandemic.

Unicef and the UN Population Fund have warned that up to 13 million girls will be forced into marriage by pandemic-linked poverty. The Population Fund says that every three months of Covid-19 lockdown has triggered 15 million additional cases of gender-based violence, mostly against women. Save the Children says 452 million children lived in conflict zones in 2020, many of them orphans and severely vulnerable to exploitation.


Covid pandemic worsens poverty in the Philippines, leaving millions more impoverished

Covid pandemic worsens poverty in the Philippines, leaving millions more impoverished
Alarming as it is to report such a jump in “modern slavery”, the UN authors fear their calculations significantly underestimate the scale of the problem. Their surveys were mostly conducted in 2020, before the worst impacts of the pandemic could be reflected and Russia’s catastrophic invasion of Ukraine.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals of eliminating forced labour and forced marriage seem more unreachable than ever.

The UN report makes grim reading. Of the 49.6 million people in “modern slavery”, it says 27.6 million are trapped in forced labour and 22 million in forced marriages. Most of those in forced labour are men working largely in construction and farming. More than half live in Asia, with the densest concentration in the Middle East.
Most of the women in forced labour are in domestic service, where a combination of isolation, a “deep power imbalance” with their employer and an absence of effective complaints mechanisms leave them unusually vulnerable. Large numbers of women and even children are suffering sexual exploitation.

Forced marriages have jumped particularly sharply, up by almost 6.6 million from 2016 to 2021. Many women are forced into marriage by their own families, and more than 50 per cent of them are married off under the age of 18. The authors were concerned that “forced marriage intersects with forced migration and human trafficking”.


Child marriages on rise in Indonesia as Covid-19 deepens desperation for poverty-stricken families

Child marriages on rise in Indonesia as Covid-19 deepens desperation for poverty-stricken families
It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the challenge of tackling these scourges that populate the darkest parts of what economists tend to call the “informal” economy, but this does not prevent the UN authors from delivering a long list of initiatives needed to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Their deepest hope rests with more effective collective bargaining, and with basic income safety nets that keep at bay the acute poverty and debt that fuel forced labour and marriage.

As Bill Gates has said, we need to spend billions in the fight against Covid-19 to prevent trillions of dollars of economic harm, so the UN authors insist: “The estimated US$77.9 billion a year required to ensure a social protection floor in low-income countries pales in comparison with the US$19 trillion mobilised in the global fiscal stimulus response to the pandemic.”

They also call for stronger oversight of ethical recruitment practices, public labour inspectorates, formal protection for those freed from forced labour, special protection for children and ways to compensate our “modern slaves” and punish the perpetrators. They conclude that “international cooperation and partnership are indispensable”.

But it is at this point that I choke on the improbability of it all. If there is one thing that has glared at us throughout the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the deepening conflict between the United States and China, it is the notable absence of international cooperation and partnership.

Lack of unity on climate, pandemic leave little hope for our ‘broken world’

Far from being components of “modern slavery”, the problems of forced labour and forced marriage have been embedded in communities across the world from ancient times. Aiming to purge them seems akin to beauty pageant contestants calling for world peace.

These problems will continue as long as we have wars, con artists, criminal gangs and people facing hopeless poverty. They will thrive among vulnerable migrants forced to flee their homes and communities by climate change and poverty. They will thrive among criminal opportunists who feign offering a helping hand to migrants.

It is valuable for UN agencies to shine a light on such unacceptable practices, but hoping this will purge them must be rather like hoping we can purge the world of flu or Covid-19. The problems will remain endemic, and our best hope is to stay alert, detect cons early, develop practices to minimise harm and work on economic growth, good education for everyone and reducing poverty. Let’s leave world peace to the beauty queens.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades