Modern slavery: Almost 50 million globally in forced labor, marriage, UN report finds

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More than 49 million people were living in modern slavery on any given day in 2021, either forced into a marriage or labor against their will, a new United Nations report found.

The number of people in forced labor and forced marriage has surged since 2016, with the UN’s International Labor Organization’s latest figures estimating that around 10 million more people were living in modern slavery during this time.

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The ILO’s 2021 Global Estimates suggest that of the 49.6 million people are in modern slavery, 27.6 million were in forced labor and 22 million in forced marriages.

Women and girls account for almost five million of those in forced commercial sexual exploitation and six million of those in forced labor in other economic sectors. Particularly worrying was that 12 percent of all those in forced labor were children and more than half of these children were involved in commercial sexual exploitation.

Child marriages are generally considered to be forced because a child cannot legally give consent to marry.

The actual incidence of forced marriage, particularly involving children aged 16 and younger, is likely far greater than current estimates can capture as the figures presented in the report are based on a “narrow definition” and do not include child marriages, a statement released by the ILO last week said.

“It is shocking that the situation of modern slavery is not improving. Nothing can justify the persistence of this fundamental abuse of human rights,” ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said in a statement last week.

“We know what needs to be done, and we know it can be done. Effective national policies and regulation are fundamental. But governments cannot do this alone. International standards provide a sound basis, and an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed… Employers’ organizations, civil society and ordinary people all have critical roles to play.”

The report also found that the Asia Pacific region had the highest number of people in forced labor (just over 15 million).

Around 86 percent of forced labor cases are found in the private sector, the ILO said, adding that migrant workers were at least three times more likely to be in forced labor than non-migrant adult workers.

The International Organization for Migration’s Director-General Antonio Vitorino said the report highlighted the urgency to ensure migration is safe.

“The whole of society must work together to reverse these shocking trends, including through implementation of the Global Compact on Migration,” Vitorino added.

The Global Compact is the first inter-governmentally negotiated agreement, prepared under the auspices of the UN, covering all dimensions of international migration.

It is a non-binding document that respects states’ sovereign right to determine who enters and stays in their territory and demonstrates a commitment to international cooperation on migration.

“Modern slavery is the antithesis of sustainable development. Yet, in 2022, it continues to underpin our global economy. It is a man-made problem, connected to both historical slavery and persisting structural inequality,” said Grace Forrest, founding director of the human rights group Walk Free.

“In a time of compounding crises, genuine political will is the key to ending these human rights abuses.”

Modern slavery occurs in almost every country across the world, cutting through various ethnic, cultural and religious lines.

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