In 2021 there were ten million more people in modern slavery compared to 2016 global estimates. Women and children remain disproportionately vulnerable

Slavery in the 21st century already totals 50 million people

photo_camera OIT/J.Maillard - Domestic workers constitute a significant share of the global workforce in informal employment and are among the most vulnerable groups of workers

Slavery is not a relic of the past that we thought was abolished. Its modern version now numbers some fifty million people, according to the International Labour Organisation's recently published Global Estimates on this form of servitude.

Most of them, 28 million, are victims of forced labour and the rest, 22 million, are trapped in forced marriages. These figures have continued to grow over the last five years, with ten million more people in modern slavery compared to the 2016 global estimates.

The report of the specialised agency highlights that the phenomenon of modern slavery appears in almost every country in the world, and that it transcends ethnic, cultural and religious lines. More than half (52%) of all forced labour and a quarter of all forced marriages occur in upper-middle-income or high-income countries. 

Forced labour occurs mostly in the private sector

The majority of forced labour cases - 86% - were located within the private economy, with the remaining 14% occurring at the state level. Some 63% of those affected by this form of exploitation work in various sectors and 23% are engaged in forced commercial sexual exploitation, an area in which almost four out of every five persons are women or girls.

The total number of women and girls in forced labour is 11.8 million, while the number of children in forced labour who are also out of school is more than 3.3 million.

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Migrants are particularly affected by forced labour

Migrant workers are more than three times as likely to be in forced labour as their non-migrant counterparts.

While labour migration has a broadly positive impact on individuals, households, communities and societies, this finding demonstrates how migrants are particularly vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking, whether caused by irregular migration or by unfair and unethical recruitment practices.

The organisation's director-general, Guy Ryder, called the failure to improve the situation of slavery "shocking" because "nothing can justify" the perpetuation of "this fundamental abuse of human rights".

"We know what needs to be done, and we know it can be done. Effective national policies and regulations are essential. But governments cannot do it alone. International standards provide a solid foundation, and an all-inclusive approach is needed. Trade unions, business organisations, civil society and ordinary citizens have a key role to play".

For his part, the director general of the International Organisation for Migration stressed that the report "underlines the urgency of ensuring" that all forms of migration "are safe, orderly and regular".

Ant贸nio Vitorino said that "reducing the vulnerability of migrants to forced labour and human trafficking depends first and foremost on national policy and legal frameworks that respect, protect and fulfil the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants - and potential migrants - at all stages of the migration process, regardless of their migration status".

"The whole of society must work together to reverse these shocking trends, including through the implementation of the Global Compact on Migration," he added.

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More cases of forced marriage suspected  

Over the past five years, the number of forced marriages rose by 6.6 million to a total of 22 million. However, the agency qualifies that the number of cases, especially those involving children under 16, is probably much higher than current estimates reflect, as they are based on a narrow definition and also do not include all child marriages.

"Forced marriage is closely linked to deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes and practices and is highly context-dependent," warns the study, which also highlights that the overwhelming majority of forced marriages (more than 85%) were driven by family pressure.

Although two-thirds (65%) of forced marriages occur in Asia and the Pacific, counting the size of the regional population, the highest prevalence of forced marriages is in the Arab States, with 4.8 persons per 1000.

Report recommendations

The International Labour Organisation study proposes a series of measures that, if adapted quickly and together, would make significant progress towards ending modern slavery. It therefore proposes: 

  • Improving and enforcing labour laws and labour inspections.
  • Ending state-imposed forced labour.
  • Strengthening measures to combat forced labour and human trafficking in companies and supply chains.
  • Broadening social protection, and strengthening legal protections, including raising the legal age of marriage to 18 years without exception.
  • Addressing the increased risk of trafficking and forced labour for migrant workers.
  • Promoting fair and ethical recruitment.
  • Promoting greater support for women, girls and vulnerable people.

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