It would be understandable to regard last week’s news about the scope of forced labor as dispiriting. Despite two decades of effort by governments, international institutions and civil society organizations, more people than ever before are being exploited around the world.
In their report, researchers from the International Labor Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the civil society organization Walk Free estimate that 50 million people are trapped in modern-day slavery, with 28 million people toiling against their will worldwide in three forms of forced labor:
- 17.3 million people are exploited at factories, construction sites, mines, farms, in private homes as domestic workers, and in other businesses.
- 6.3 million people have been forced into commercial sexual exploitation.
- 3.9 million people are forced by governments to work in prison factories and other settings.
Although these figures represent a significant increase in forced labor since the research team’s previous report five years ago, which found that 25 million people were in forced labor, there have also been promising new developments in recent years that provide reasons for hope.
Here are five developments that top my list:
Cleaning up global supply chains
Governments are beginning to require businesses to eradicate forced labor from the global economy. France, for example, now requires major companies to investigate their supply chains for forced labor vulnerabilities and fix any problems they find. The US has expanded enforcement of its longstanding ban on importing foreign goods tainted by forced labor. The US also now presumes that all goods from the Xinjiang region of China are produced by Uyghurs trapped in vast forced labor facilities, and these goods are embargoed unless a company proves a shipment isn’t tainted.
The US Trade Representative is currently developing ways to use trade treaty provisions to fight forced labor. These developments broaden the burden of confronting forced labor and underscore the value of prevention.
Direct corporate initiatives
Some companies are taking action on their own. UPS has trained delivery drivers, Delta Airlines has trained cabin crews, and Marriott has trained hotel workers how to spot telltale signs of forced labor and what to do when they see them. Companies such as Walmart, McDonalds and Whole Foods participate in the Fair Food Program to buy vegetables from farms that are free from forced labor because of worker-driven social responsibility programs. Practical resources such as the Responsible Sourcing Tool, Know the Chain and Comply Chain help businesses that want to avoid forced labor when buying raw materials.
Unity in the US Congress
Despite the polarized political environment, Democrats and Republicans have been cooperating to renew landmark legislation that undergirds federal programs to combat forced labor in the US and around the world, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The four-bill reauthorization package includes important policy improvements. The House has already passed one part of the package by an overwhelming vote of 401 to 20, demonstrating that combating forced labor has strong bipartisan support. Final passage is expected soon.
Integrating anti-trafficking strategies into international development and humanitarian assistance
Forced labor often happens in communities where international programs are already working to improve decent work opportunities, food security, education, gender equity, healthcare, access to water and sanitation and other development goals. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been integrating components to address forced labor into these other programs. This speeds the growth of field activities by piggybacking onto programmatic infrastructure that is already in place. USAID has also taken steps to ensure programs to fight forced labor are included in humanitarian assistance for war refugees from Ukraine.
Ensuring survivors have a say
No one knows more about forced labor than those who have lived through it. But for too long, their expertise has been missing in discussions about solutions. That is changing. Groups like the National Survivor Network and the Survivor Alliance are uniting those with lived experience to ensure they become decision-making leaders. This is generating innovative ideas, greater authenticity and renewed momentum.
These are just a few of the many positive developments in recent years that demonstrate the movement to end forced labor is growing stronger and more effective.
Global prevalence studies document that this is a persistent challenge that will take a whole-of-society approach to overcome. And last week’s report stresses the need to focus on social and economic inequality, military conflict, climate change and unsafe migration — all of which make people vulnerable.
But the bottom line must not be that we’re losing the battle because the estimated number of victims is rising. The takeaway must be that our movement needs significant new funding to continue to scale up what’s working in order to get the job done.
The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) is a U.S.-based coalition that advocates for solutions to prevent and end all forms of human trafficking and modern slavery.