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Garment workers in Bangladesh, where the Walk Free Foundation estimates that 1,531,300 people are in modern slavery. (Photo: Asian Development Bank/flickr/cc)

World's Low-Cost Economy Built on the Backs of 46 Million Modern Day Slaves

'Business leaders who refuse to look into the realities of their own supply chains are misguided and irresponsible.'

Deirdre Fulton

Close to 46 million men, women, and children are enslaved across the world, according to a harrowing new report from the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.

Many of them, the analysis notes, are in fact ensnared providing "the low-cost labor that produces consumer goods for markets in Western Europe, Japan, North America, and Australia."

The organization's 2016 Global Slavery Index—based on 42,000 interviews conducted in 53 languages, covering 44 percent of global population—found there to be 28 percent more "modern slaves" than previously estimated.

According to the report (pdf), "modern slavery refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception, with treatment akin to a farm animal." The classification includes victims of human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, sex trafficking, forced marriage, and other such exploitation.

More than half (58 percent) of those who are enslaved are in five countries: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. In the latter country, for example, during the annual cotton harvest, one million citizens were subjected to state-sanctioned forced labor in 2015.

Accompanying the report is a case study of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, penned by Kevin Bales, a professor of Contemporary Slavery at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull in the UK.

"Slavery never happens in isolation," he writes, arguing that in the wake of armed conflict "a perfect storm of lawlessness, slavery, and environmental destruction can occur—driving the vulnerable into slave-based work that feeds into global supply chains and the things we buy and use in our daily lives."

Bales explains:

In the past twenty years, this perfect storm has hit the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A war that erupted in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide spread across the region, bringing collapse to the Congo’s ruling dictatorship, invasion by surrounding nations, and a sharp rise in slavery and sexual violence. The armed groups that grabbed parts of the eastern provinces were not there for political or religious reasons, but to steal and sell valuable minerals and other natural resources. Lacking mining technology, but heavily armed, these criminal groups enslaved thousands of local people.

These slaves were forced to cut protected virgin forests, level mountains, spoil streams and rivers with great open-strip mines, and massacre rare and endangered species like gorillas. The minerals these slaves dug, processed and then carried on their backs to smuggle them out of the country flowed into our lives. For these slave-based, environmentally-destructive minerals are essential to making cell phones, computers, and the thousands of other electronic devices that surround us every day.

"Closing down slave-based logging, brick-making, mining, or charcoal production will not hurt our lifestyles or the global economy," he concludes. "What it will do is get people out of slavery and slow global warming and climate change—a classic win-win situation."

Walk Free also explores how violent conflict in the Middle East has led to mass "distress migration" that has in turn "had a trifold effect on neighboring host countries: (a) increased competition for low-paying jobs and employment in the informal economy; (b) increased incidence of all forms of modern slavery, such as child labor, forced begging, and forced early marriage; and (c) reduced capacity of State actors to respond to trafficking cases because already scarce resources are outlaid on the emergency provision of services to refugees instead of supporting migrant workers."

With this in mind, writes Walk Free's executive director of global research Fiona David, "a strong focus on safe, well-managed migration, whether in times of peace or conflict, must become a cornerstone of integrated international and national responses to modern slavery."

In his forward to the report, Walk Free founder and chairman Andrew Forrest puts the onus on corporations to help end modern slavery. "Businesses that don’t actively look for forced labor within their supply chains," he said, "are standing on a burning platform. Business leaders who refuse to look into the realities of their own supply chains are misguided and irresponsible."


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