2022 global estimates of modern slavery

Anna Triponel

September 16, 2022
Our key takeaway: Some bad news: We’re not seeing improvement in the global prevalence of forced labour. Over the last five years, an additional 2.7 million people have been coerced into forced labour, adding to a current total of 27.6 million people in situations of forced labour. And this increase is entirely due to the growth of forced labour in the private economy, including sectors like services, manufacturing, construction, agriculture and domestic work. Countries in every region and at every income level are affected; strikingly, more than half of all forced labour happens in upper-middle-income and high-income countries. But we also have an opportunity for progress. The ILO, IOM and Walk Free Foundation set out top priorities to curb forced labour by 2030, including protecting worker voice, promoting fair and ethical recruitment, ensuring access to remedy for people impacted by forced labour, focusing on the most vulnerable groups (women, migrants and children), conducting robust due diligence in company value chains to identify “hotspots”, and partnering for systemic change, among others. 

The International Labour Organization (ILO), International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Walk Free Foundation have released their 2022 edition of Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage (September 2022), which uses data sources like household surveys and data collected by international organisations to “[assess] the situation of modern slavery in the world today and the key policy priorities for ending it among children by 2025 and universally by 2030”:

  • Forced labour is increasing due to now-familiar global challenges: The report finds that there are 27.6 million people in forced labour “on any given day,” translating to 3.5 people in forced labour for every thousand people globally. Women and girls account for 11.8 million people in forced labour, and children account for 3.3 million people in forced labour. This represents an increase of 2.7 million people in forced labour over the last five years, “which translates to a rise in the prevalence of forced labour from 3.4 to 3.5 per thousand people in the world.” This increase was driven entirely by forced labour in the private economy, both in forced commercial sexual exploitation and in forced labour in other sectors,” and exacerbated by ongoing challenges like poverty, instability and indebtedness caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and armed conflict. The report highlights that 17 million people are under forced labour imposed by the private economy, even after excluding those in forced commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Where it happens and who is most vulnerable: According to the report, “Asia and the Pacific is host to more than half of the global total (15.1 million), followed by Europe and Central Asia (4.1 million), Africa (3.8 million), the Americas (3.6 million), and the Arab States (0.9 million). But this regional ranking changes considerably when forced labour is expressed as a proportion of the population. By this measure, forced labour is highest in the Arab States (5.3 per thousand people), followed by Europe and Central Asia (4.4 per thousand), the Americas and Asia and the Pacific (both at 3.5 per thousand), and Africa (2.9 per thousand).” That said, forced labour is not limited to low-income countries; more than half of all forced labour takes place in upper-middle and high-income countries. Forced labour is now most common in the private economy, with 86 percent of all forced labour cases imposed by private actors. A further 3.9 million people are in state-imposed forced labour, many cases involving compulsory prison labour, abuse of conscription and forced labour for economic development. As a result, “[f]orced labour touches virtually all parts of the private economy. The five sectors accounting for the majority of total adult forced labour (87 per cent) are services (excluding domestic work), manufacturing, construction, agriculture (excluding fishing), and domestic work.” There is a “gender dimension” to this, with women in forced labour more likely to be in domestic work, while men in forced labour are most likely to be in the construction sector. Further, women are “more likely to be coerced through wage non-payment and abuse of vulnerability, and men through threats of violence and financial penalties. Women are also more likely than men to be subjected to physical and sexual violence and threats against family members.” Migrant workers are likewise more vulnerable than other workers, with about 3 times as many migrant workers in forced labour as non-migrants. Finally, children face especially urgent risks. Because child labour is often hidden, the recorded 3.3 million children in forced labour “may well be just the tip of the iceberg.” Children may be in forced labour across many sectors, with over half in commercial sexual exploitation, and many in domestic work, agriculture and manufacturing. 
  • Combating forced labour: The report outlines some top priorities for a pathway to eliminating modern slavery (forced labour and forced marriage) universally by 2030. Some of these priorities are especially relevant for companies and others in the private sector. First, “[r]espect for the freedoms of workers to associate and to bargain collectively is indispensable to a world free from forced labour. These fundamental labour rights enable workers to exert a collective voice to defend their shared interests and to bargain collectively for secure and decent work, thus creating workplaces that are inimical to forced labour and workers who are resilient to its risks.” In addition, companies should “promote fair and ethical recruitment” and ensure access to remedy for people impacted by forced labour. For example, “[r]emedies include compensation for material damages (e.g., as medical costs, unpaid wages, legal fees, and loss of earnings and earning potential) or for moral damages (e.g., pain and emotional distress). Currently, only a very small share of those subjected to forced labour and human trafficking are provided with compensation or other forms of remedy.” It is also critical to support laws and policies that address migrants’ vulnerability to forced labour, as well as support for identification and protection measures for children in forced labour; more and better data is needed. The report also calls for companies to address forced labour in their operations and supply chains by “identifying, prioritizing, and acting on “hotspots” where the risk of forced labour and other human rights abuses is highest in terms of both severity and scale. Particularly important in this context are the informal micro- and small enterprises operating at the lower links of supply chains in high-risk sectors and locations.” Many of these actions cannot be taken alone—international, multi-stakeholder and cross-sectoral partnership are necessary to address the issue of forced labour at scale. 

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