This article was authored by Richard Samans, director of research at the International Labor Organization and chairman of the Climate Disclosure Standards Board. He served previously as managing director of the World Economic Forum; director-general of the Global Green Growth Institute; and special assistant to the president and NSC senior director for international economic affairs in the White House.
Today, March 25, is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Forty million men, women, and children remain in modern slavery today, of which twenty-five million are in forced labor and fifteen million in forced marriage. The majority are women and girls, including nearly all of the 4.8 million victims of forced sexual exploitation.
The first international convention on forced labor was adopted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1930 (Convention 29). It states that forced labor is a “service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”
The world’s only tripartite multilateral organization, the ILO celebrated its centenary in 2019, marking one hundred years of governments, workers, and employers working together to achieve social justice. Its close collaboration with the U.S. Department of Labor over the past twenty-five years has helped to expand the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) and bring ninety million children out of work.
Progress on forced labor has been slower, but the adoption in 2014 of a Protocol and Recommendation to Convention 29 has provided fresh impetus. It sends a clear message to all stakeholders and countries that forced labor and human trafficking are serious human rights violations and crimes and need to be dealt with as such.
The ILO, the International Organisation of Employers, and the International Trade Union Confederation organized the “50 for Freedom Campaign” aimed at expanding ratification of the 2014 Protocol on Forced Labor.
The campaign reached its goal just last week, on March 17, when the protocol received its fiftieth ratification. Fifty member states from all parts of the world have now committed to “develop[ing] a national policy and plan of action for the effective and sustained suppression of forced or compulsory labor in consultation with employers’ and workers’ organizations.”
Nevertheless, the challenge remains daunting. The COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflict, climate change, and natural disasters have put the most vulnerable members of our societies, including migrants, at greater risk. They often face physical and sexual violence as part of an atmosphere of coercion and intimidation, which can include the withholding of wages or important documents like passports, or debt bondage resulting from recruitment costs.
In many parts of the world, irregular migrants as well as most labor migrants working in lower-skilled sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and domestic work do not have access to the legal protection necessary to prevent and address such repression and abuse.
Most forms of modern slavery are motivated by the prospect of financial gain, just as during the colonial era. Unfortunately, human trafficking for labor exploitation remains a lucrative business. Every year, it generates an estimated $150 billion in profit while devastating the lives of millions of women, men, and children and undermining the vitality of national economies through the loss of taxes, remittances, and human potential.
Ours can be the generation that ends forced labor, but only if we recognize that this stubborn, complex problem requires a holistic—i.e., whole-of-government and multi-stakeholder—response that begins with providing education for all, ensuring livelihood opportunities, empowering women and girls, protecting the most vulnerable, and upholding labor standards through stronger labor inspection and law enforcement.
Strengthening the voice and participation of workers is critical. Freedom of association and collective bargaining are fundamental and universal rights that help to ensure safe and healthy working conditions and enable workers to obtain a fair share of the wealth generated by the enterprises in which they are employed.
Since workers in the informal sector are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, formalization efforts are critical and can be advanced through smarter enterprise registration and regulatory practices, expanded social protection systems, and skills training and job matching services coordinated with local labor market dynamics.
Real impact comes from cross-sector collaboration and shared expertise, with businesses, governments, and civil society working together. We are already seeing this happen, with corporations in the same sector sharing best practices and collaborating with organizations that specialize in the fight against slavery. A growing number of firms perceive forced labor as a serious risk to their operations and reputations, and they are exercising greater diligence in their recruitment strategies and processes.
As important as preventive measures like these are, we also have to protect victims. This means doing a better job of identifying and freeing them as well as providing shelter, medical care, and psychological support. Access to justice and compensation is essential, as are ongoing efforts to expand access to quality basic education, training, and decent work. This also requires standardized procedural guidelines, common operational indicators, national referral mechanisms, and overall coordination. In assisting policymakers, better data and targeted research are central to guiding more effective policies and practices.
Slavery remains a cross-border phenomenon, so improved international coordination and cooperation are essential. A prominent example is Alliance 8.7, a global multi-stakeholder partnership committed to achieving Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which requests “immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking, and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour… and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.” Alliance 8.7 seeks to accelerate progress by scaling effective solutions, driving innovation, and leveraging and maximizing the impact of resources.
The United States has taken a leading role in the fight against forced labor and human trafficking through its trade policy, development assistance, and the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report. It could build on this record by promoting stronger country-level employment frameworks that protect labor rights and enforce fair recruitment practices, as well as ratifying the ILO forced labor convention and its accompanying 2014 protocol.
Today, March 25, marks the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The abolition of slavery and forced labor was one of the first human rights struggles in modern history. Grounded in an abiding commitment to human dignity and social justice, its fundamental vision remains unfulfilled but can be realized within the next decade through the intensified collaboration of all states and stakeholders.