Slavery Is Not Merely A Historical Relic

Steps must be introduced to ensure that Brexit does not become a highway to modern day slavery

The United Nations’ landing page on the abolishment of slavery begins with these powerful words: ‘Slavery is not merely a historic relic.’ Despite the fact that the we often talk about slavery being abolished, unfortunately, this refers predominately to its legality and not its empirical reality. Slavery indeed is not a historical relic and continues in its traditional form or in its evolved forms as modern day slavery. The forms of modern day slavery include forced labour, child labour, trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation.

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, observed on 2 December, marks the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. The day is a reminder that some progress has been made, however, the issue of modern day slavery continues to haunt the 21st century. To explain the extent of the problem, below, I present some of the most important statistics.

Over 40 million people were victims of modern day slavery on any given day in 2016. This includes almost 25 million victims of forced labour and a staggering 15 million or more in forced marriage. Indeed, forced marriage is also a form of modern day slavery. In 2016, 88% of the victims of forced marriage were women and girls, with 37% of them being forced to marry before the age of 18. 44% of the child victims were forced to marry before the age of 15.

Out of the almost 25 million victims of forced labour, 16 million are believed to be enslaved in the private sector, four million enslaved by states and state bodies, and almost five million in forced sex labour. In 2016, one in four victims of modern slavery were children. In 2016, more than a million of the victims of forced sexual exploitation were children.

Modern day slavery is gendered. As reported by the UN, Women and girls constitute 99% of the forced commercial sex industry and 58% of other forms of the modern day slavery.

The above estimate has to be distinguished from the 2016 statistics of the 152 million children in labour in general. This number includes the victims of child modern day slavery and children that were in labour but not considered as modern day slaves. 73 million of them undertook hazardous work. The number of boys in child labour reached 88 million in 2016, higher than the amount of girls in child labour by 24 million. Almost 71% of children were employed in agriculture, 12% in industry, and 17% in the provision of services. Despite the fact that only around 10 million children are being perceived as victims of modern day slavery, the staggering number of children forced to work because of their economic situation or other external reasons cannot be neglected.

There is no solution for all above mentioned forms of modern day slavery. Forced labour is a lucrative business. The 25 million victims of forced labour are believed to contribute $150 billion worth of illegal profit. In states where the forced labour is accommodated by the states themselves, it is clear that there will be no change until there is a change of government into one that respects the human rights of all and the state’s own international law obligations. Forms of modern day slavery, for example, forced marriage, constitute a criminal offence in many countries. However, this does not mean that the occurrence of forced marriages, even in the countries where it is criminalised, has been successfully abolished. The empirical reality is very grim.

Modern day slavery is not only the problem of third world countries, as it is often perceived. Modern day slavery is present all around us. For example, in 2014, the Home Office estimated that there may be as many as 10,000 - 13,000 victims of modern day slavery in the UK. Despite the fact that this issue is now of great concern and the UK government continues to address it, modern day slavery is something that will need to seriously be considered in the upcoming Brexit debates. Brexit’s potential impact on the issue of modern day slavery cannot be underestimated.

Once Brexit occurs and many Europeans lose their right to work in the UK, are unable to migrate to the UK, or cannot undertake work legally, (the specifics of which are still to be discussed and agreed upon), an environment conducive to modern day slavery could develop. Ultimately, individuals who would undertake work illegally in the UK would be afraid to complain about any bad working conditions, low pay or no pay, unlawfully long working days or weeks (especially in manual labour) or an unsafe working environment. The fact that the individuals would work illegally and would be afraid to report their situation – may be abused by employers and so lead to modern day slavery. This issue needs to be considered by the UK in preparation for Brexit and steps must be introduced to ensure that Brexit does not become a highway to modern day slavery.

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