Modern Slavery: How widespread? What to do about it?

The Economist has a powerful series of articles on modern slavery this week. Sorry this is too long, but they write so well, I struggled to make Econ slavery 1cuts.

How to reduce bonded labour and human trafficking

“The time that I went into the camp and I looked, I was shocked. Where all my expectations and my happiness all got destroyed, that was the minute that it happened.” So testified Sony Sulekha, one of the plaintiffs in the largest human-trafficking case ever brought in America. He and around 500 other Indians had been recruited in 2005 to work in the Signal International shipyard in Mississippi. Each had paid at least $10,000 to a local recruiter working for Signal, expecting a well-paid job and help in getting a green card. Instead they laboured in inhumane conditions, lived in a crowded camp under armed guard and were given highly restricted work permits. Last month a jury awarded Mr Sulekha and four others $14m in damages against Signal and its recruiters. Verdicts in other cases are expected soon. Signal says it will appeal.

Estimates of the number of workers trapped in modern slavery are, inevitably, sketchy. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) puts the global total at around 21m, with 5m in the sex trade and 9m having migrated for work, either within their own countries or across borders. Around half are thought to be in India, many working in brick kilns, quarries or the clothing trade. Bonded labour is also common in parts of China, Pakistan, Russia and Uzbekistan—and rife in Thailand’s seafood industry (see below). A recent investigation by Verité, an NGO, found that a quarter of all workers in Malaysia’s electronics industry were in forced labour.

Until recently campaigners paid most attention to victims who had been trafficked across borders to work in the sex industry. An unlikely alliance of right-wing Christians and left-wing feminists argued that prosecuting sex workers’ customers would be the best remedy. But the focus is now widening to the greater number of people in other forms of bonded labour—and the proposed solutions are changing. Campaign groups and light-touch laws, backed up by the occasional high-profile prosecution, aim to shame multinationals into policing their own supply chains.

In December Pope Francis and the grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque, together with several other religious leaders, launched the Global Freedom Network, a coalition that tries to press governments and businesses to take the issue seriously. The ILO has launched a fair-recruitment protocol, intended to cut out agents, which it hopes will be ratified by national governments.

Two new philanthropic funds are also being established. The Global Fund to End Slavery, which is reported to have substantial seed money from Andrew Forrest, an Australian mining magnate, will seek grants from donor governments and part-fund national strategies developed by public-private partnerships in countries in which bonded labour is common. The Freedom Fund, launched in 2013 by Mr Forrest (again), Pierre Omidyar (the founder of eBay) and the Legatum Foundation (the charity of Christopher Chandler, a billionaire from New Zealand), finances research into ways to reduce bonded labour.

The Freedom Fund’s first schemes include assessments of efforts to free bonded labour in the Thai seafood industry, the clothing industry in southern India and—a harder problem, since the customers are rarely multinationals—in brick kilns in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

America made human trafficking illegal in 2000, after which it started to publish annual assessments of other countries’ efforts to tackle it. But it has only slowly turned up the heat on offenders within its borders. Australia and Britain have recently passed light-touch laws along the lines of a law requiring transparency in supply chains that was adopted by California in 2010. This requires manufacturers and retailers that do business in the state and have global revenues of at least $100m to list the efforts they are taking to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains. A firm can comply by simply reporting that it is doing nothing. But it seems few are willing to admit this, lest it upset customers or staff, meaning that the issue is forcing its way on to managers’ to-do lists.

Ending bonded labour will require economic as well as legal measures, says Beate Andrees of the ILO. But she also hopes to see some “strategic litigation”. Nick Grono of the Freedom Fund thinks one of the multinational construction firms preparing Qatar to host the 2022 football World Cup could be a candidate. There is evidence of “wilful blindness” to the terms on which migrant construction workers are being recruited, he says. A successful prosecution could be salutary.

Econ slavery 2Slavery and Seafood in Thailand

Before he escaped, Maung Toe, an immigrant from Myanmar, laboured unpaid for six months on a Thai ship fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. He had been forced aboard at gunpoint and sold by a broker to the captain for $900. It was the first time he had ever seen the sea.

Mr Maung’s story is told by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a charity, in a recent study of trafficking and piracy in Thailand’s seafood industry. The country hosts tens of thousands of trafficking victims, by conservative estimates, many from Myanmar, as well as from Cambodia and Bangladesh. Many of them sweat on trawlers or in vast fish-processing plants. Some were duped by recruitment agents; a few were kidnapped. Others are migrants who were waylaid by traffickers while travelling through Thailand.

Overfishing is partly to blame. Average catches in Thai waters have fallen by 86% since the industry’s large expansion in the 1960s. Such meagre pickings have driven local workers out of the industry and encouraged captains to seek ultra-cheap alternatives. Boats now fish farther afield and stay at sea for months at a time, making slavery harder to spot.

International pressure is mounting. The American government ranks Thailand among the least effective of all countries in fighting trafficking, along with Iran, North Korea and Syria. Food firms in Europe and North America—who together purchase about a third of Thailand’s fish exports—seem concerned. Last year the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, promised tougher enforcement. At a press conference this month, the authorities said they had identified nearly 600 trafficking victims in 2014.

But cynics worry that the military government in power since a coup last May will turn a blind eye again once the immediate threat to exports fades. Frank discussion of the business seems to be discouraged. Two journalists in Phuket—an Australian and a Thai—may face a defamation trial for republishing sentences from a Reuters article alleging that navy personnel had helped traffickers. In January campaigners forced the government to drop a plan to put convicts to work on fishing boats—a policy probably intended to dampen demand for bonded labour. A broader shift towards respecting human rights seems some way off.

India’s Bonded Labourers

Many of India’s “modern slaves” labour in appalling conditions in brick kilns or breaking stones in quarries. Typically they are Econ slavery 3recruited by agents offering real jobs and then trapped by accepting an advance on earnings, which turns out to be a loan at exorbitant interest that no worker can ever hope to repay. The boss then suggests that the worker bring in his wife and children, and soon the entire family is enslaved. Unpaid debts can be bequeathed from one generation to the next.

Despite having been illegal in India for several decades, such practices continue. Corrupt politicians and police, the caste system and an illiterate workforce with few alternative ways to make a living combine to keep millions in bonded labour. Yet there are examples of activists successfully intervening to free such slaves and, crucially, to keep them free.

One notable example is the Society for Human Development and Women’s Empowerment [nb can’t find a link for this – have they got the name wrong?], an NGO that organises rescues from brick kilns near Varanasi, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. It seeks out victims, teaches them their rights, organises them into support groups and works with government officials both to free bonded labourers and to make sure they get benefits they are entitled to and school places for their children. It also provides training, especially to women, so that they can earn money in other ways. Some freed workers have even been helped to set up their own brick kilns.

The Freedom Fund is now piloting a “hotspot” strategy that seeks to show how bonded labour can be eradicated from entire districts by helping the most effective NGOs to work together. Grants of up to $200,000 have been given to 17 NGOs in 27 districts in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where bonded labour is most prevalent.

These efforts, although positive, barely scratch the surface of a huge problem. So the Freedom Fund has recruited the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex and Harvard University’s FXB Centre for Health and Human Rights to study the hotspots to discover what is working and whether it can be scaled up fast. The first results are due in a few months.

And here’s Freedom Fund’s 5m intro to modern slavery

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6 Responses to “Modern Slavery: How widespread? What to do about it?”
  1. Tasneem Kakal

    Hi Duncan,

    Interesting post. It is indeed true that we must look beyond human trafficking as only through the lens of the sex industry. It is very much intersectional in nature. Furthermore, what troubles me is the exact line between forced labour and migrating to work out of choice. Particularly in the case of large amount of South Asians travelling to the Middle east. While the World Cup in Qatar will stimulate even more of this flow, it is also an opportunity for the ‘international community’ to highlight the issue.
    If I am not mistaken, the NGO in Uttar Pradesh that you mention is the Manav Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikash Sansthan which translates to Society for Human Development and Women’s Empowerment. Here is the link:

  2. Priya Deshingkar

    Thanks for the post Duncan, the summaries are extremely useful. With reference to the efforts being made to rescue and rehabilitate bonded workers in brick kilns, we need to ask why previous experiments have not succeeded. Is it because there are no other alternatives available, because they are trapped in debt or something else? I think the difficulty with a lot of these initiatives is that they are based on assumptions and not backed up with research that explains the counterfactual or how such migration is perceived by migrants themselves. Alpa Shah wrote a very interesting paper about brick kilns that puts a completely different perspective on the process “The Labour of Love”. We need a more informed debate based on research like hers.

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks for the link Priya, the paper ( fascinating. Here’s the abstract:
      ‘Seasonal casual labour migration in India has conventionally been understood as the result of extreme poverty whereby villagers are forced to become migrants for the dry six months to subsist or merely survive. This article draws on fieldwork in a village in Jharkhand and a brick kiln in West Bengal to argue that migrants do not understand
      their movement in economic terms alone. Many see the brick kilns as a temporary space of freedom to escape problems back home, explore a new country, gain independence from parents or live out prohibited amorous relationships. It is suggested that Jharkhandi activists and policy-makers’ construction of such migration as a ‘problem’ is as much about their vision of how the new tribal state ought to be as about exploitation. Migration to the kilns is seen by them as a threat to the purity and regulation of the social and sexual tribal citizen. This moralising perspective creates a climate that paradoxically encourages many young people to flee to the brick kilns where they can live ‘freely’. In this way, the new puritanism at home helps to reproduce the conditions for capitalist exploitation and the extraction of surplus value.

  3. Erica

    International Justice Mission is another organization doing important work in this area — in particular on bonded labor in India where the org received a significant grant from (the company’s charitable arm) to scale up and replicate its model through local partner orgs. You might also be interested in the End Modern Slavery Initiative Act of 2015, a bill introduced in the US Senate that would contribute to a global fund to end slavery. Thanks for your coverage of this issue, Duncan!

  4. Robins Duncan

    I have also seen this phenomena where the essential reason of migration and being part of a modern day slavery is majorly due to the compulsions of work and livelihood with climatic changes. Agriculture being a predominant livelihood for most village people and due to the lack of owned land whole families migrate which are over 20 – 30% of the population during dry/ non farming months and their homes are left deserted. The contractors uses these conditions to give a living as well as exploit them, as they have no options. Providing alternative occupations during those months, or a food for work programme besides the Government Rural work guarantee policies if impacted effectively will remedy the same, besides tracking the contractors and how they treat these people. The explore country, gain independence and other aspects covered in Duncan’s reply gives a real twist to the same maybe more to be covered by cinematic effort like, Slumdog Millionaire!

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