December 18, 2017

Modern-day slavery is pervasive. Though estimates differ – the Global Slavery Index approximates 45.8 million people, while the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates 40.3 million – it is clear that slavery is a global crisis.

Where is modern-day slavery most prevalent?                                                                                           

According to the Global Slavery Index, North Korea (4.37%), Uzbekistan (3.97%), Cambodia (1.64%), India (1.40%), and Qatar (1.35%) have the highest prevalence – percentage of population – in modern-day slavery.

Modern-day slavery is an umbrella term – often used interchangeably with human trafficking – that refers to the exploitation of individuals through threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, and/or deception. It includes the practices of forced labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude, forced marriage, sex trafficking, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers, among others. The most common forms of exploitation are forced labor, which, according to the ILO, impacts 24.9 million people a year – 16 million in private sector exploitation, 4 million in state sanctioned forced labor, and 4.8 million in sex trafficking – and forced marriage, which enslaves 15.4 million individuals. The types of slavery vary by country and region, and, as will be seen in the cases below, is dependent on domestic factors such as the economy, type of government, social structure, current events, natural disasters, and interaction with neighboring countries.

North Korea

With 4.37 percent of its population enslaved, North Korea has the highest prevalence of modern-day slavery in the world. The North Korean government is the primary offender, presiding over forced labor both at home and abroad. Domestically, political prison camps and labor training centers have institutionalized forced labor among North Korean citizens. It is estimated that between 80,000 to 120,000 citizens are held prisoner in labor camps, forced to work long hours in poor conditions in logging, mining, and farming.  Even those not held in political prisons or labor training centers are required to work for the state. For instance, schools force their students to work on farms with the threat of physical abuse if quotas are not met. Internationally, in an effort to subvert sanctions, North Korea exports forced labor to over 45 countries, earning approximately two to three billion dollars annually through their exploitation. North Korean workers are located primarily in China and Russia, but also have a substantial presence in the Gulf states and Africa in industries such as construction, resource extraction, and agriculture. There have been widespread news reports on North Korean laborers building World Cup stadiums, and other large construction projects, in Russia.

North Korea’s oppressive state causes many to flee the country, making them vulnerable to traffickers. Women and girls who have escaped or been smuggled to China with a promise of a better life are often subjected to trafficking, either in the commercial sex trade or as brides. China’s unbalanced demographics, a result of its one-child policy, creates a demand for brides, particularly in rural areas; North Korean women are often trafficked to fulfill this demand. If found by Chinese authorities, North Koreans are forcibly repatriated and are often placed in labor camps or put to death.

Uzbekistan

It is estimated that 3.97 percent of Uzbekistan’s population ­­­­­­are ­­victims of modern-day slavery. Men, women, and children have historically been forced into labor in the country’s cotton fields. Though the government has stated that forced child labor ended in 2015, the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report mentions that anecdotal evidence shows forced labor of students, aged 11-15, continued. State sanctioned labor by adults in agriculture and construction remains widespread. Further, it is believed that a large portion of cotton harvested through state sanctioned slave labor is in the supply chains of major companies around the world. Reporting on modern slavery in Uzbekistan is difficult as the government has routinely harassed, threatened, arrested, and abused activists seeking to observe the cotton harvest and weeding seasons. Outside of Uzbekistan, citizens are subjected to forced labor in the construction, oil and gas, agriculture, retail, and hospitality sectors, mostly in Kazakhstan, Turkey, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Ukraine. Though forced labor is most prevalent, sex trafficking of Uzbeks occurs both domestically and internationally, victimizing primarily women and children.

Cambodia

Cambodia is the third most prevalent country for modern-day slavery in the world with 1.65 percent of its population living in slavery. Forced labor, debt bondage, forced marriage, and sex trafficking are the most common forms of slavery in Cambodia. Large numbers of Cambodian men have been victims of forced labor on fishing vessels, particularly Thai vessels; details of their poor conditions and treatment have been widely reported in the media. Global Slavery Index estimates that out of the 201,000 people subjected to force labor in Cambodia, 60 percent are in manufacturing, meaning that slave labor is in supply chains of multi-national corporations around the world. Forced labor through debt bondage is also prevalent in agriculture, construction, factories and domestic work. Cambodian women often migrate for domestic work in the Middle East, Malaysia, and Singapore, but have faced significant abuse and have since been barred from employment as maids in Malaysia and are prevented from work in Qatar based on concerns of “sexual abuse, low wages, and harsh laws.” Sex trafficking remains an issue in Cambodia. Men, women, and children are exploited in the sex tourism industry, which has been pushed further underground due to efforts to curb it. Street children are particularly vulnerable, and boys specifically have been the victim of abuse by foreign nationals as well as Cambodian men and those from neighboring countries.

The Global Slavery Index estimates that 55,800 people in Cambodia are victims of forced marriage. Further, the demand for brides in China has increased trafficking of Cambodian women. Women often enter marriages through a broker with promises of a better life in China, but many are deceived and find themselves in debt and facing situations of forced labor, prostitution, and/or domestic abuse.

India

Global Slavery Index survey data reveals that approximately 18 million people, 1.4 percent of India’s total population, are victims of modern-day slavery. Debt bondage, a type of forced labor that compels an individual to work to pay off a debt – often from previous generations – is the most common form of modern slavery in India. Men, women, and children are all engaged in debt bondage and forced to work in brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture, and factories. Consistent with global trends, the most vulnerable groups to modern slavery in India are those in the lowest caste, minority groups, and migrants, and particularly women and children from these communities. Forced labor also occurs outside of debt bondage; children are exploited to work as carpet weavers, domestic servants, and beggars, as well as in factories and agriculture. Further, it’s reported that organizers of begging rings intentionally mutilate children as a way to earn more money. It is estimated that millions are subjected to sex trafficking. Child sex trafficking is common in areas of religious pilgrimage and tourist destinations. Foreign women and children are vulnerable to sex trafficking, particularly those from Nepal and Bangladesh. Forced marriages and recruitment of children into armed forces also continue to be prevalent in India.

Qatar

Forced labor in Qatar is a pandemic. It is estimated that 1.36 percent of its population lives in modern-day slavery. With approximately 90 percent of its population labor migrants, the population is vulnerable to exploitation.  These individuals – primarily from South and Southeast Asia as well as Africa and the Middle East – relocate to Qatar voluntarily for work in the construction and domestic sectors, but often find themselves subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, or other forms of modern day slavery. Forced labor and debt bondage is often a result of illegal and large fees charged by recruiters in the sending countries, however, Qatar’s kafala system is also responsible for the institutionalization of forced labor. Kafala, translated as sponsorship system is a framework that requires unskilled migrants to have an employee sponsor to legally be in the country. This system has created systemic abuse as employers often confiscate passports and are able to abuse workers with little recourse. Qatar has faced widespread international condemnation for their use of slave labor, particularly in the construction of World Cup sites. The government announced it abolished the kafala system in 2016, but this appears to be in name only. In October 2017, it was again reported that the end of the kafala system was near and improvements to workers’ rights forthcoming. Though construction is the most visible form of forced labor in Qatar, domestic workers, who are almost exclusively female and under the kafala system, face many of the same issues. Employers have been known to withhold payments, restrict movement, confiscate passports and other personal documents, and physical, psychological, and sexual violence. Even worse, domestic workers who speak out about these abuses are often imprisoned for “illicit relations.”

For more information on modern-day slavery in these countries and others, visit the Global Slavery Index and the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shervey .