What if there was still slavery?

Modern Forms of Slavery: An Overview

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights already makes it clear in Article 4: «Nobody may be held in slavery or serfdom; Slavery and the slave trade are prohibited in all their forms. " But even now that there is no longer any state legally legitimizing the slavery of people, there are still widespread forms of illegal extreme exploitation worldwide, which are summarized under the collective term of "modern slavery". According to current estimates, no fewer than 40 million people are currently living in slavery and forced labor.

Abolition and Prohibition of Slavery

Historical slavery was based on people's right to property over people; it was culturally recognized and legally protected in the slave-holding societies.

From the second half of the 18th century, the slave trade and legally legitimized slave ownership in the Western European states and their colonial areas were increasingly questioned, opposed and gradually banned. In the USA the abolition of slavery had to be fought for in 1865 with a civil war lasting several years.

International treaties against slavery

In the “Convention on Slavery of Sept. 25, 1926” of the League of Nations, the contracting states finally committed themselves to “prevent and suppress the slave trade” and to work towards the abolition of slavery in all its forms.

The international prohibition and outlawing of slavery was first adopted by the United Nations in 1948 as a principle in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in 1953 as an international agreement, which was supplemented in 1956 by the additional convention on the abolition of slavery, the slave trade and institutions and practices similar to slavery . The concept of slavery was expanded in this agreement to include practices such as debt bondage, serfdom and the sale of women or children.

International ban on forced labor

In addition, a convention on forced and compulsory labor of the International Labor Organization (ILO convention No. 29) has been in force since 1930. Forced labor is defined as "any type of work or service that is required of a person under threat of any kind and for which he has not volunteered." (Art. 2 Para. 1). This does not apply to work in military service, normal civic duties, work in the penal system, necessary work in cases of force majeure and work that serves the immediate good of the community (Art. 2, Paragraph 2).

The ILO Convention No. 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labor of 1957 supplements the ILO Convention of 1930 with the following meanings: Forced labor as a means of political coercion or political education or as a punishment against political or ideological opponents; as a method of recruiting and using manpower for economic development; as a measure of work discipline; as a punishment for participating in strikes; as a measure of racial, social, national or religious discrimination.

Both ILO conventions against forced labor are now part of the eight core labor conventions of the International Labor Organization.

The concept of modern forms of slavery

Historical slavery was based on a legally recognized ownership relationship over the enslaved people. After the prohibition of legally legitimized forms of slavery, the meaning of the term slavery has expanded. Now we speak of "modern slavery" when one person is under the control of another person for the purpose of economic exploitation, who uses means of force and power to maintain this control.

The term modern slavery, however, is not sharply defined, but rather as an umbrella term for various practices: forced labor, debt bondage, forced prostitution, forced marriage, human trafficking. One therefore speaks of the "modern forms of slavery". This concept therefore refers to a variety of situations of exploitation that a person cannot leave on their own due to threats, violence, coercion, deception and / or abuse of power.

UN Special Rapporteur

In 2007, the UN Human Rights Council appointed a special rapporteur on combating contemporary forms of slavery for the first time. Gulnara Shahinian was the first incumbent. The lawyer from Armenia was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the extent of contemporary forms of slavery, their causes and consequences.

Since 2014 this office has been exercised by the South African lawyer Urmila Bhoola. It prepares country reports and thematic analyzes in the annual reports to help clarify the facts and recommend concrete measures to the international community that support the abolition of modern forms of slavery.

To the extent of modern slavery

The common feature of modern forms of slavery is that they are forbidden by law and are therefore largely practiced in secret. This makes a reliable estimate of their extent difficult.

The prominent Walk Free Foundation estimates that around 45.8 million people are currently in traditional slavery, forced labor, bonded labor, serfdom, forced prostitution and human trafficking. According to its own information, the foundation covers 167 countries with its research, conducted surveys with more than 42,000 people and evaluated 161 statements from governments. On this basis, the foundation created the “Global Slavery Index” for 2016.

The methodology of this estimation has drawn some criticism in recent years. As the surveys only took place in 25 countries and the results were transferred to other countries with a similar risk profile, the findings obtained are correspondingly fuzzy.

evaluation of the data

The International Labor Organization ILO, together with the Walk Free Foundation, recently published the report “The 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery”, which summarizes the Walk Free Foundation's 2016 data and tries to draw conclusions for the level of action.

According to the report, 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery in 2016. Of these, 24.9 million were subjected to forced labor and 15.4 million were victims of forced marriage. Furthermore, around 10 million of those affected were minors, i.e. children and adolescents. These are particularly victims of forced marriages and sexual exploitation.

How difficult it is to quantify and precisely define modern forms of slavery is shown by a comparison with the figures from the United Nations Children's Fund UNICEF. This estimates that around 168 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 have to work (with) worldwide. Even if only a small part of them are considered child slaves, the problem of quantification is obvious.

Categories of modern slavery

The faces of modern slavery are many and varied: Forced labor is most common in the private sector, of which bonded labor makes up about half. Significantly fewer people are affected by state forced labor - comparable to the number of women who are forced into sexual exploitation. A significantly larger number of women have been forced to marry. This category is also considered a form of modern slavery. Below we explain some of the categories of modern slavery.

Hereditary Slavery

The historical references are clearest in hereditary slavery. In the past, prisoners of war, abducted persons or debtors fell into socially legitimized slavery, whereupon their descendants conceived in captivity also bore the stigma of slavery. This hereditary form of slavery still exists, albeit less and less because of the worldwide ban on slavery.

But Mauritania, for example, was the last state in the world to legally prohibit slavery until 1981; and it was not until 2007 that the ban was threatened with punishment. Old structures are still at work here and firmly rooted.

The Global Slavery Index estimates the number of traditional slaves in Mauritania at 140,000-160,000, proportionally higher than anywhere else. The Mauritanian organization SOS Esclaves even suspects up to 600,000 (approx. 20% of the population). The ruling elites hold on to the oppression and hide it. The work of human rights organizations is actively prevented. To date, slave owners in Mauritania have only been sentenced in exceptional cases; also because the court proceedings favor the slave owners and the slaves have the burden of proof.

Debt bondage

Debt bondage is more common today. In various countries, private individuals or private companies give loans to needy and often lacking prospects at excessive interest rates. Often times, interest rates make debts grow faster than they can be repaid. This can create a relationship of forced labor: the debtors see themselves forced to work off their debts without a real chance that this goal can be achieved with the small earnings. The work often takes place under poor working conditions, violence or threats of violence, abuse and sexual exploitation. Debts are passed on over generations and cause a form of hereditary slavery.

This type of modern slavery exists all over the world. It is most common in Asian countries. In absolute terms, India has the largest number of slaves in the world: according to the Global Slavery Index, around 18 million people in India are believed to be living in modern slavery, many of them in bondage. Although the country legally overturned debt bondage in 1976, the system remains intact due to poor law enforcement and the deeply rooted Indian caste system.

The dependency becomes particularly serious for debtors who have owed an employment agency for a job in a distant country. The previous credits and often confiscated ID cards are strong mechanisms of control and exploitation.

Human trafficking for sexual exploitation

According to the aforementioned ILO report from 2017, around 4.8 million people are sexually exploited worldwide, 99 percent of them women. 21 percent of the victims are minors.

The UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons from 2016 states that 51% of those affected by human trafficking are adult women. For Europe, he states that 65% of all human trafficking cases have been identified in the sex industry. The estimates run into the millions, there are no reliable numbers.

Most of the cases of human trafficking in the sex trade discovered in Switzerland originate from Nigeria and Hungary, followed by Romania and Thailand, according to the FIZ specialist office for women trafficking and migration. There are identifications wherever there is a proactive investigation and where trafficking investigation units in the police are better trained in identifying alleged victims. These are lured to Switzerland under false promises and forced to do sex work under exploitative conditions. But not all sex workers are affected by human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. In order to be able to identify those affected by human trafficking, it is important to distinguish human trafficking from self-determined sex work. Women can be exploited and their sexual integrity violated not only in sex work, but also in other industries.

Human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation arises in the context of global inequality and power relations and is closely linked to gender-specific discrimination. Worldwide, women have less access to education and gainful employment than men and they bear most of the responsibility for their families. This makes them vulnerable. Traffickers take advantage of this vulnerability. The economic precariousness in the countries of origin and restrictive migration regimes as well as the demand for cheap and docile workers in the destination countries drive women into the arms of mediating third parties. They often deceive them about the nature and conditions of the work.

Forced marriage

Although in many countries cultural practices are the basis for forced marriages or for the purchase of a bride, forced marriage also counts as a category of modern slavery. Underage girls are often affected. The reasons for such marriages can be many. In poorer families, the younger girls are sold in order to relieve the family and provide for them, or to pay off debts. In war zones, girls are sometimes kidnapped, mistreated or married to combatants. It is precisely these forms of forced marriage that are undoubtedly violent in nature and form the basis for many years of physical and sexual abuse and exploitation.

Buying a bride is still very widespread in China, for example, and is often associated with human trafficking. Here, too, the driving factors are the poverty of rural families and the abundance of men compared to women. Most Chinese families want sons rather than daughters, which leads to a gender imbalance (through abortions). At the same time, men traditionally have to pay a high dowry for women - usually a multiple of it than if they were to buy a woman. They can get these cheaply from professional smuggler gangs who kidnap young girls from neighboring countries such as Laos, Vietnam or North Korea.

Child labor

Around a quarter of modern slaves are children. Many of them toil in households or on farms and plantations, for example to grow cocoa or cotton. Many minors also fall victim to forced prostitution.

There is child labor worldwide. With around 10 percent of children, the rate in Haiti is noticeably high. Here the children work as so-called «restavèks», house slaves. Mainly for reasons of poverty, parents send their children as domestic workers to wealthy families, where they are often psychologically, physically and sexually abused. This predicament is common in other countries as well.

Child soldiers

The International Labor Organization has defined the use of children as soldiers as an extreme form of exploitative child labor. In crisis areas, children are kidnapped and forcibly recruited as soldiers. Under the conditions of massive violence and mistreatment, the minors are forced to commit atrocities of war - acts that cause lifelong trauma.

The reports from the Congo were sensational. After the civil war broke out in 1996, tens of thousands of children were abducted and turned into child soldiers. An estimated 17,000 child soldiers are also used in South Sudan, where civil war has been raging since 2013.

Combating Modern Slavery

The fight against modern slavery is on the agenda of many actors. The strategic accents are set differently. In the following, we provide information on the approaches taken by two international actors.

International Trade Unions: Economic Regulation

A recent study by the International Trade Union Confederation emphasizes that many governments around the world have taken successful steps in the fight against modern slavery. But the actions are still not coordinated enough.

The key to success is detailed due diligence and reviews of economic activities. Supply chains in industrial and service companies would have to become more transparent so that the prosecution could punish misconduct in areas such as forced labor, child labor or extreme exploitation.

The most important prerequisite for combating modern slavery is political will. Because governments should better coordinate their efforts internationally and exchange information. They would have to give their companies clear guidelines on how to deal with national laws to eliminate modern slavery.

Every single state is called upon to formulate the human rights due diligence obligations for commercial enterprises in a binding manner with targeted legislation. This would be a hugely important step in curbing modern slavery.

ILO: Alliance 8.7 as part of the 2030 Agenda

The 2030 Agenda of the United Nations offers a unique global forum for advancing the fight against modern slavery on an international level. In target 8.7 it calls for "immediate and effective measures [...] to abolish forced labor [and] end modern slavery and human trafficking".

On this basis, the International Labor Organization (ILO) founded “Alliance 8.7” on September 21, 2016 as an international network to combat all forms of modern slavery. The campaign pursues the approach of bringing together governments as well as international and civil society organizations under one roof for joint action. To date, however, there is no public list of partner institutions that have joined.

The aforementioned report “The 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery” was published under the Alliance 8.7 label. In the second part, the report provides a route to end modern slavery by 2030.

In addition to international cooperation between states and between states and international organizations, the closing of gaps in the legislation of various countries is important. As further steps in the fight against modern slavery, the report mentions strengthening labor and social rights in the shadow economy. The workers are to be effectively protected from forced labor. Because modern slavery thrives best in conflicting states, the report emphasizes the role of humanitarian aid in these areas.

Incidentally, in the final declaration of the Hamburg summit in June 2017, the G20 heads of government promised that they would take immediate and effective measures to eliminate child labor and - without a deadline - also forced labor, human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery by 2025 . However, one would like to add: Now words have to be followed by deeds.