Modern slavery: a global phenomenon

Kevin Hyland | Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner UK

Modern slavery can be found in every corner of our globalised world. In 2017, the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery estimated that 40.3 million individuals were living in modern slavery; with individuals being exploited for the purposes of sexual exploitation, forced labour, forced marriage, domestic servitude, and forced criminality.

Advances in data collection have allowed us to better understand the prevalence and drivers of modern slavery, region by region and country by country. Higher rates of modern slavery have typically been associated with countries with lower economic wealth, weak rule of law, and those affected by conflict. Whilst this remains the case, this year’s Global Slavery Index highlights the significant role that more economically-developed countries have in perpetuating modern slavery. Despite their relative wealth, modern slavery crimes are taking place at an alarming rate in these countries and within their global supply chains.

Progressive action has been taken by developed nations to combat modern slavery, such as the introduction of modern slavery legislation, and this is to be welcomed. However, it is clear that critical gaps remain in the provision of protection for the vulnerable and in the apprehension of perpetrators.  

Whilst new laws to tackle modern slavery are to be welcomed, countries also have a responsibility to look at existing legislation and assess whether they are inadvertently generating the conditions in which exploitation can flourish. Particular cohorts of the population, such as those working in the "gig economy" or seasonal migrant workers, may be particularly vulnerable to abuse due to weak labour laws and restrictive immigration policies. Any legislation, policy and practice that exacerbate abuse must be repealed.

In my role as the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, I have seen just how much can be achieved when there is political will to tackle modern slavery, and a readiness of government, business, and civil society to work in partnership. However, it is also clear that merely having modern slavery legislation, without the commitment or resourcing to ensure its effective implementation and enforcement, is not enough.

In 2015, the Modern Slavery Act was brought into force in the UK which, with the support of business, included a "Transparency in supply chains" provision. This provision requires businesses with a turnover of £36 million or more that provide goods and services in the UK to produce an annual statement explaining what they are doing to tackle modern slavery within their supply chains. The inclusion of this provision was an important step; however, two years on, corporate response to this requirement remains patchy at best. In 2017, 43 of the FTSE 100 failed to comply with the basic requirements of this legislation. Even with the legislation, the UK has a long way to go to in ensuring that UK businesses are slavery-free.  

The introduction of the Modern Slavery Act has undoubtedly served to raise awareness of modern slavery, resulting in year-on-year increases in the number of victims of modern slavery being identified. There is greater understanding of the various forms of modern slavery and the prevalence of British nationals falling victim to this crime. However, greater awareness is just a starting point; we must ensure that where cases are identified they are met with a robust, professional response.

The UK’s current system of support – the National Referral Mechanism – does not meet the needs of all victims and is currently being reformed. I welcome this. This is a crime that can destroy lives and we have a responsibility to protect and support victims to recover from their experiences and rebuild their lives – regardless of age, gender, or nationality.

It is unacceptable that modern slavery continues to exist in a climate of low risk criminality and high profit reward, making it the crime of choice for criminals, who for too long have operated with impunity across the UK and beyond.

All countries are affected by modern slavery and therefore all have a responsibility to bring an end to this scourge. Collaborative action at the local, national, and international level is required to address the conditions which make individuals vulnerable to abuse.

Through research such as this Global Slavery Index, we have a greater understanding of modern slavery across the globe. We know what the problem is, let’s now act.