No country in the world is exempt from modern slavery. Regardless of size, population or wealth, this insidious crime permeates national borders and global supply chains. Even in countries with seemingly strong laws and systems, there are critical gaps, particularly for the most vulnerable. Serious, collaborative action to respond to modern slavery is long overdue.
Four years since all UN member states reached agreement on the Sustainable Development Agenda, progress to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.7, which aims to eradicate modern slavery, has been incredibly slow. Beyond honouring their commitment to the SDGs, there is a moral imperative for governments to respond to this gross abuse of human rights. If the world is serious about ending the enslavement of 40.3 million people, governments will need to redouble efforts to identify victims, arrest perpetrators, and address the drivers.
At the UN level, progress towards the SDGs is measured by a global indicator framework and Voluntary National Reviews, where governments report on their own activities against these indicators. This approach is hampered, however, by the lack of indicators on all forms of modern slavery under SDG 8.7, as well as the voluntary nature of this reporting. Without clear indicators to measure progress toward the 2030 goal, governments are not able to report systematically and consistently, nor can they be held to account.
In the absence of official indicators, this report, Measurement, Action, Freedom, provides an independent assessment of 183 governments and their responses to the challenge of modern slavery. In it, governments are assessed against their ability to identify and support survivors, to establish effective criminal justice systems, to strengthen coordination mechanisms and be held to account, to address underlying risk factors, and to clean up government and business supply chains, all in order to eradicate modern slavery. The findings shine a light on those taking strong action, identify those that are lagging, and highlight the activities that should be prioritised.
Findings at the global level
Governments are not on track to eradicate modern slavery and achieve SDG 8.7 by 2030. Although there is a trend toward improvement, with the global average score since 2015 increasing from 4 out of 10 to 5 out of 10, the pace of change falls far short of what the scale and severity of modern slavery demands.
While the improved responses in approximately 50 percent of countries are acknowledged, this means that half of all countries in this report have not reported any meaningful change in their response or have taken a backward step. Governments are falling short even in the most fundamental aspects of a strong, committed response.
Some of the key gaps include:
Of the 183 countries assessed, only 31 have ratified the ILO’s 2014 Forced Labour Protocol. Forty-seven countries have not criminalised human trafficking in accordance with the definitions outlined in the UN Trafficking Protocol; a further 96 countries have not criminalised forced labour, and 133 have not criminalised forced marriage. Ratifying the Forced Labour Protocol and criminalising all forms of modern slavery are the most basic steps a country can take, but we find that many countries have failed to take these actions.
Victims are not being identified. Despite the large number of countries that have provided training to their police (166) and to immigration officials, border guards, or labour inspectors (141) on how to identify victims, the rates of identification remain extremely low. An estimated 40.3 million men, women, and children were living in modern slavery in 2016. In the same year, the number of victims identified globally was a fraction of that. Governments cannot extend protection to victims they cannot reach and, at present, they are failing at the first step – identification.
Survivors are being let down by a lack of services, with limited options for men, children, and migrant populations in 95 countries. Many victims are also subject to re-traumatisation due to officials’ limited understanding of their needs. In 71 countries, victims face criminal charges for crimes committed while exploited, and in 60 countries, victims are deported or detained for immigration violations. These figures are likely to be underestimated, with limited publicly available information on these issues. Survivors are also largely excluded, with few governments taking concrete action to engage directly with them to strengthen their policy response.
Despite there being an estimated 16 million people in forced labour exploitation in the private economy worldwide, engagement with business is limited. Only 40 countries have investigated public or business supply chains to tackle labour exploitation. This includes mandatory reporting legislation in Australia, the UK, and the US, as well as the establishment of guidelines for public procurement specialists across the EU.
Country-level action… and inaction
Despite the slow progress, the 10 countries taking the most action to respond to modern slavery are:
1. The United Kingdom
2. The Netherlands
3. The United States
These countries are characterised by strong political will, high levels of resources, and a strong civil society that holds governments to account. However, not all of these countries have matched good policy with effective enforcement. There are low numbers of identified victims, as in Croatia, or few prosecutions for labour exploitation, as in the Netherlands. Countries with otherwise strong responses also may have restrictive and discriminatory migration policies, which continue to be a key driver of modern slavery, as is the case in the EU, UK, the US, and Australia.
The 10 countries taking the least action to respond to modern slavery are:
1. North Korea
5. Equatorial Guinea
7. Democratic Republic of the Congo
According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, approximately 6.9 million people were in some form of modern slavery in these countries. This amounts to 17 percent of the total number of people in modern slavery living where there is limited, if any, government action. These countries are characterised by government complicity (North Korea and Eritrea), low levels of political will (Iran), high levels of corruption (Equatorial Guinea), or widespread conflict (Libya). Few victims are being identified and there are even fewer prosecutions. There is also evidence that governments are actively enslaving part of their population in some of these countries. In North Korea, there are reports that prisoners are forced to labour in camps under threats of violence, and actual violence, to themselves and their families.
Taking account of capacity to respond
When correlated against GDP (PPP) per capita, some countries stand out as taking relatively robust action when compared with those that may have stronger economies and a greater capacity to act. Countries such as Georgia, Nigeria, Ukraine, Moldova, Ethiopia, and Mozambique are notable for taking steps to respond to modern slavery despite having limited resources. Both Mozambique and Ethiopia have criminalised human trafficking in line with the UN Trafficking Protocol; in Mozambique, victims who participated as witnesses in criminal proceedings were able to access witness protection programs in 2018. In contrast, there are wealthier countries that have done little when it comes to combating modern slavery. Qatar, Singapore, Kuwait, Brunei, Hong Kong, and Russia stand out as taking relatively limited action despite the size of the problem they confront and the national resources at their disposal. In Hong Kong, evidence suggests that victims are increasingly being treated as criminals for conduct that occurred while under the control of their exploiters.
The way forward
At the current rate of progress, achieving SDG 8.7 is impossible. Based on best available estimates, we need to free some 10,000 people per day in order to eradicate modern slavery by 2030. Measurement, Action, Freedom highlights that the rate of change required to achieve this goal must be far more aggressive. Without renewed commitment from every country and effective measurement, millions will continue to be enslaved. We are calling on all governments to:
Work together to develop indicators and adopt these to track progress to eradicate all forms of modern slavery under SDG 8.7.
Based on our analysis of current government responses to SDG 8.7, we urge that all governments, at a minimum, take the following actions:
1. Increase identification of, and improve assistance for, modern slavery victims.
2. Ratify the ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930.
3. Strengthen existing modern slavery legislation to ensure that all forms of exploitation are criminalised and penalties are severe.
4. Empower women and girls by providing primary education for all.
5. Strengthen national laws to protect labour rights for all workers in both the formal and informal economy.
Beyond these minimum requirements, we recommend that governments:
6. Ensure survivor voices are included in all aspects of the response by consulting with victims and providing avenues for their input.
7. Enforce legislation by providing training and resources for police, prosecutors, judges, and defence attorneys.
8. Remove barriers to victim participation in the criminal justice system, such as ensuring access to visas, compensation, and restitution.
9. Develop evidence-based National Action Plans or strategies.
10. Engage with business and strengthen strategic partnerships to tackle modern slavery.
The SDGs were not meant to be divisible nor achieved by a single government acting alone. Therefore, cooperation and coordination are crucial. Governments should participate in regional and bilateral fora to share resources and expertise. International organisations should provide technical capacity to implement the above recommendations, while civil society should work together to hold governments to account.
Through the precise measurement of progress and identification of gaps in current responses to SDG 8.7, we can galvanise immediate and effective action towards the eradication of the most extreme forms of exploitation, and bring about the freedom of 40.3 million people in modern slavery.
Together, we all have a role to play in ending modern slavery.