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Whether it’s human trafficking for online scams in Cambodia or the forced labour of the Uyghur population for garment production in the Xinjiang region of China, modern slavery continues globally. Data from the International Labour Organization (ILO), published in September, shows it’s getting worse. More robust legislative measures could help, experts say.
‘The law can do something positive in terms of introducing the tools to increase deterrents but also to eliminate or mitigate root causes,’ says Maria Pia Sacco, Special Projects Officer of the IBA Business Human Rights Committee and a senior legal advisor at RP Legal & Tax in Bologna, Italy.
Under the Sustainable Development Agenda, the UN’s member states have committed to ending modern slavery by 2030. Modern slavery, according to human rights organisation Anti-Slavery International, is ‘when an individual is exploited by others, for personal or commercial gain’. It can include forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage and human trafficking. In 2021, over 50 million people were thought to be enduring modern slavery, according to the ILO – an increase from 40 million in 2016.
Covid-19, the climate crisis and conflicts are to blame, says Katharine Bryant, Head of Policy and Programs at the human rights group Walk Free. ‘These compounding crises have led to increased vulnerabilities – employment and poverty – and those who are most vulnerable are at risk of being exploited’, she says.
The World Bank estimates that there are between 75 million and 95 million additional people living in extreme poverty in 2022 than there were pre-Covid-19. Legislation that addresses the root causes of modern slavery could make a difference in combatting it, says Sacco, who adds that, thus far, ‘the traditional criminal law approach has proven to be inefficient and ineffective’.
As of 2018, 96 out of 183 countries hadn’t criminalised forced labour as a standalone offence, 133 hadn’t criminalised forced marriage and only 31 had ratified the ILO’s 2014 Forced Labour Protocol, which calls on states to make forced labour a penal offence with adequate penalties. Hong Kong, for example, has no dedicated law against human trafficking while Vietnam has no specific legislation against slavery. The Asia Pacific region has the highest number of people in modern slavery, according to ILO data.
Maria Pia Sacco
Special Projects Officer, IBA Business Human Rights Committee
Even when laws have been put in place, the World Economic Forum highlights that they can be ignored. For instance, in Albania the legal minimum age for marriage is 18 but there are reports of much younger people entering into wedlock.
More positively, international conventions in this area have long been in existence. For example, the Voluntary Principles Initiative’s principles on security and human rights date back to 2000; the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work was adopted in 1998; and a resolution for a UN treaty on business and human rights was first adopted in 2014 and is now on its third draft.
The elimination of modern slavery remains far off, however, says Sacco. She calls for policymakers to consider adopting labour, migration and transparency and due diligence legislation that would apply to corporations, given that so much modern slavery takes place within value chains.
Rocío Domingo Ramos, Business and Human Rights Policy and Research Officer at Anti-Slavery International, says that more governments are starting to think about mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation. For example, in October, the UK introduced a national standard to help organisations eradicate modern slavery.
The EU, meanwhile, adopted in February a proposal for a directive on corporate sustainability due diligence, which will ensure businesses prevent human rights violations and environmental harm in their operations. And in 2019, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to ratify the ILO Work in Fishing Convention, which ensures fishermen have formal terms and conditions of employment – a response to reports of enslaved migrants being trapped aboard Thai fishing vessels.
Some governments are also introducing import bans for goods made or delivered with forced labour. The US Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act – which would stop the importation of any products from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region unless there’s clear evidence that they’re not connected to forced labour – became law in late 2021, for instance.
Legislation such as the modern slavery acts in both the UK and Australia also place some emphasis on the role of corporations. Section 54 of the UK’s law, for example, stipulates that any commercial organisation earning over a certain amount and providing goods or services in the country must produce a statement outlining steps taken during the financial year to prevent slavery and human trafficking from occurring in its supply chains and operations. The focus here is on transparency rather than due diligence though, says Sacco.
Proper due diligence, says Ramos, should consider the risks of a company’s operations in terms of human rights and environmental damage. ‘The objective of this […] is to make sure that companies take all steps that are in their hands to prevent these harms from happening and then, if these harms do happen, mitigate the impact and remediate workers’, she says. Ramos adds that there should also be a legally aligned instrument globally so that there are standardised processes and policies for multinational businesses.
Lawyers can ensure ‘this is not just another tick box exercise for companies’, says Ramos. ‘It's something [that] can really trigger some meaningful change on the ground and in the lives of the people that we’re trying to protect.’ Bryant adds that ‘investors also have an important role here’ and they need to be asking questions around what companies are doing to tackle modern slavery. ‘If we’re talking about where money comes from, that’s another lever we can apply’, she says.
At a practical level, there also needs to be greater access to legal advice for those who have experienced modern slavery, says Kate Roberts, Head of Policy at the non-governmental organisation Focus on Labour Exploitation. In the UK, research from the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (Atleu), published in October, revealed that 90 per cent of support workers helping survivors struggled to find legal advisers for their clients in the past year. As a result, Atleu is calling for legal aid to automatically be made available for victims, with immigration legal advisers working on trafficking and modern slavery cases to be paid on an hourly basis.
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