First-person perspectives on the world of work
Photo: © ILO/ Crozet M.

The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 24
Forced Labour

Modern slavery is unseen because it's convenient

20 September 2022

Fifty million people were living in modern slavery in 2021, according to the latest Global Estimates of Modern Slavery. Of these people, 28 million were in forced labour and 22 million were trapped in forced marriage. Almost one in eight of all those in forced labour are children and more than half of these are in commercial sexual exploitation.

The number of people in modern slavery has risen significantly in the last five years. 10 million more people were in modern slavery in 2021 compared to 2016 global estimates. Women and children remain disproportionately vulnerable. Modern slavery also occurs in almost every country in the world, and cuts across ethnic, cultural and religious lines.

So why is this, why is slavery still with us despite all the efforts that have gone into eradicating it? And what should we be doing about it?

Sophie Otiende, Chief Executive Officer of the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, and Grace Forrest, Founding Director of Walk Free, join us to explore the many reasons for the continued existence of modern slavery and the role we can all play in finally putting an end to it.


Hello, and welcome

to this edition of the ILO's Future of Work Podcast.

I'm Anders Johnson coming to you from Geneva, Switzerland,

to talk with our amazing guests about today's subject modern slavery.


Now, a lot of people tend to assume that slavery is something

from the past relegated to history books alone.

Yet, the grim reality is that 50 million people were living in situations

of modern slavery in 2021.

That's according to the latest global estimates

of modern slavery jointly released

by the International Labour Organization, Walk Free,

and the International Organization for Migration,

of these men, women, and yes, children,

28 million were in forced labour

and 22 million were trapped in forced marriage.

The number of people in modern slavery has risen significantly

in the last five years.

10 million more people were in modern slavery in 2021

compared to the previous estimates in 2016.

It occurs sadly in almost every country in the world.

Why is slavery still with us,

despite all the efforts that have gone into eradicating it?

What else should we be doing about it?

To find answers to these questions and more,

I'm honored to introduce our two inspiring guests for today,

Sophie Otiende and Grace Forrest, welcome to the Future of Work Podcast.

Thank you.

Thank you so much for having me.

Sophie Otiende is the Chief Executive Officer of the Global Fund

to End Modern Slavery and the founder of the Kenyan Azadi Initiative,

which supports victims of human trafficking

and promotes their active participation in the human rights arena.

Grace Forrest is the founding director of Walk Free,

an anti-slavery organization and partner of the ILO.

She's the youngest ever United Nations Association Goodwill Ambassador

for anti-slavery,

and currently sits on the board of directors for the Freedom Fund.

Now, there's a lot to unpack here.

To begin with, what do we mean when we talk about forced labour

and modern slavery.

How do you define it? Maybe, Grace, we can start with you.

We use modern slavery as an umbrella term that refers to forced labour,

forced marriage, commercial sexual exploitation,

human trafficking, slavery-like practices,

and the worst forms of child labour.

What all of these abuses have in common is

that it is the systematic removal of a person's freedom

where one person is exploited by another

or by a company for personal or financial gain.

Because you asked specifically about forced labour,

that definition is any work or service that a person is forced

to do against their will under threat of punishment.

What's the current situation of modern slavery

and forced labour around the world?

The current situation is that there are 50 million people living

in modern slavery as of any given day in 2021.

This increase from the previous estimate is

of 10 million people equivalent to the entire population of Greece.

Breaking that 50 million persons down sees

28 million people living in forced labour

and 22 million people living in forced marriages.

80% of all forced labour cases are occurring in supply chains.

The increase in this figure is directly

due to the private economy and global supply chains.

Sophie, is this something that you're essentially seeing

as well around the world?

I've had conversations with Grace before about this.

Those of us who are practitioners

and out on the front lines have always said that the numbers don't capture

the individual stories enough.

There are even people we haven't caught yet

because one of the issues with,

let's say, something like domestic servitude is in the places that it exists.

It's so invisible.

It's difficult to be able to get data from households

because people are being abused in private.

These numbers, yes, I would say this is a reflection of--

It basically captures what we've seen.

During COVID-19,

we saw more and more people are vulnerable to trafficking,

to abuse as a result of loss of work.

Some of them become vulnerable because they lived in households

where their husbands were abusive.

Their families were abusive.

It was really hard.

The increase in numbers basically just shows the state of the world

and also just the dynamic nature of this issue.

Sophie makes an excellent point in regards to figures.

I want to make really clear from our side here that

50 million people living in modern slavery is actually a baseline estimate.

We are definitely not capturing all forms of modern slavery in this figure.

For example, we don't capture organ trafficking,

and there are also huge gaps in measurement here of children,

of both the worst forms of child labour, and, most certainly, child marriage,

so I just want to reiterate that point from Sophie

that these are baseline numbers,

and also the fact that these figures are built from lived experience.

These are from people's experiences of modern slavery,

of survivors and their families,

representative of 97% of the global population created

through tens of thousands of surveys in over 70 countries.

Something that I found surprising in going through the report is not just

how prevalent the problem is around the world,

but also how modern slavery manifests itself in our workplaces.

Can you perhaps give us some examples of this,

or of some of the sectors in which it more often appears?

What I'd start by saying is that slavery never occurs in isolation.

It is a man-made problem that is connected

to both historical slavery and persisting, structural inequality.

Historical industries of slavery, such as cotton, tobacco,

and sugar, continue to profit off the exploitation of others today.

The Fashion industry is another key one,

which is connected to both raw materials,

such as cotton, as well as manufacturing.

I would say there is no industry that isn't touched by modern slavery

rather than listing a few,

but those three that I listed of cotton, tobacco, and sugar, are certainly leading.

When we look at the context of a green transition

in this climate crisis

that we are living through,

we have great fear around exploitation being recemented

into the "green economy" through supply chains of batteries,

through supply chains of solar panels, and wind turbines, which right now,

if not taken with urgent action,

will be built off forced and child labour throughout the world.

Why is it? What do you think we need to do to change

people's perception of slavery?

I always say that time is both positive and negative.

The times that when we talk about modern slavery,

everyone thinks that somehow there's this point where slavery became modern

or something about it became modern.

When in reality,

the same, same context

in which slavery in the past existed,

it's because of how we've decided to drive the world economy.

The way we drive the World economy is that we have a difference

between rich people and poor people,

and those who have and those who don't have,

and those who don't have get to work for those who have,

and sometimes to the point of exploitation for survival.

When you think about the industries, of course,

it's industries where our basic needs come from.

It's food, it's clothing.

Now, it's technology.

Grace is talking about climate.

The reality is that slavery keeps evolving

in every single generation, and the main reason is

because we really don't want to confront what the root issues of slavery is,

which is inequality.

How do we redistribute resources

in a way that everyone can be able to access resources,

can be able to survive without being exploited?

That's hard. You ask how.

The report talks about the gendered nature of slavery,

the modern slavery itself.

This hasn't changed.

Women will consistently be trafficked in places,

in care work because of course,

as a result of gender, women are always going to work in care work,

so they will be abused in that sector.

Also, thinking about the fact that this is an issue

that is connected to almost every single other issue

that you could think about,

and it's mainly as a result of not addressing the historical reasons

it existed in the beginning.

I remember reading that there was about

between 10 million to 12 million Africans,

which were enslaved as part of the transatlantic slave trade,

and yet today, with 50 million people and more

potentially in situations of modern slavery.

That's five times more than during the entire transatlantic slave trade.

When you say that, then people are shocked.

In most cases, the response I get from people is that,

"How don't we know? Why don't we see these people?"

That's why I do like the report is that

it gives a picture of the reality

of these people around you.

The reason why the transatlantic slavery period,

people get as emotional and people can see it,

it's because of the chains,

it's because of the horrific conditions that have been painted in the past.

I speak a lot about narrative.

The reality is right now is people are not being held

in chains, so it's not easy to see them.

These people are the people who are serving you in hotels.

They're people who are serving you in your homes.

They're migrant workers who,

when all of us at the end of this year are going to enjoy

the Qatar World Cup,

there are families who have buried bodies in their backyards

as a result of forced labour.

Again, it's unseen because right now,

the chains are not there.

They're not there to remind us that we're exploiting people.

It's also unseen because it's convenient.

I think something that was said over and over throughout the global pandemic

that deeply triggers both Sophie and I is

people saying the system is so broken.

The system isn't broken.

The system is working perfectly as it was designed.

The system was designed to exploit others for the benefit of some.

I think that we also need to talk a little bit philosophically

about the way we view who deserves

and has access to human rights because,

on paper, people will nod along and say,

"Yes, everybody should have access

and should have their most basic fundamental human rights

as written by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Yet, when we describe situations of modern slavery,

horrific modern abuses that are occurring throughout our global economy,

that does not discriminate by region,

that is happening in every country and is cutting across ethnic,

cultural, and religious lines, as well as underpinning our global economy,

too often does someone say,

"Oh, well, those people are lucky to have any job,

or "Child labour is normal in that culture."

Child labour, and exploitation, and abuse is not normal.

We need to look very deeply at who is actually responsible

for these abuses.

Because if a multinational chocolate company is saying,

"Oh, well, we can't control that child labour at the front of our supply chain.

It's happening in that cultural context," that's complete rubbish.

They are actually cementing a cycle of cyclical poverty

through their inability or choice to not pay a living wage,

to not actually protect people in their supply chain.

If these companies were put in a position

where they could not put chocolate on the shelves,

let me guarantee you, they'd fix that problem very quickly.

We keep seeing people talking about this as if it's a mistake

or something that they can't see,

when actually, we know that if you look, you can see it.

It's just going to require changes to happen in order to fix it.

Which reminds me that there was a study by the ILO, and admittedly,

this goes back a couple of years to 2014,

but it showed that forced labour generates

over $150 billion in profits every year.

One can only assume that the number has only risen since.

Clearly, this is big business.

The reality is that

so long as we keep playing around the narrative

that companies can make profits at all cost, we're not getting anywhere.

So long as we say that the system, as you were saying,

the system is working as it should

because we have consistently

not centred people over profits, we haven't.

We've not centred it in the way we work with companies.

We've not centred it in the way we do our migration.

We've not centred people in all these processes.

Then, we come at the end of the process, and there's exploitation,

and people are being abused, and we start asking ourselves,

"Why is this happening?"

I was talking to someone else saying,

Thomas Sankara, who's one of my heroes,

basically was speaking to people and said,

"You want to see imperialism, look at your plates.

Where is your food coming from?"

I tell people, most of the time, you want to think about modern slavery,

it's not invisible.

Look at the clothes you are wearing. Look at the food you are eating.

None of us asks those questions because,

as soon as it means a slight inconvenience to our personal lives,

as soon as it means that I'm going to have to pay

a shilling more for the food on my table,

people have no problem with human rights

so long as it does not personally inconvenience them.

That is such an excellent point.

I think that we are living right now

through a rising cost of living throughout the world,

but let's not pretend that that is being experienced in the same way.

If you're experiencing that in a country with social protection,

you are 50 leaps ahead of somebody else who is not.

I think it's a hard pill to swallow.

When we look at what's happened with the mass food disruption

of supply chains from the Russian invasion of Ukraine,

obviously, there has been an unprecedented focus

on that regionally in Europe,

but the impact of that food insecurity

in North Africa and the Middle East is driving

vulnerability to modern slavery,

and yet we seem to be looking at them in two different ways.

Sophie, I'm so grateful that you raised migration here,

be it distress migration,

or be it chosen migration

because we do not treat these things equally depending on where

someone comes from in the world.

Coming back to that point of, "Oh, well, they're lucky to have a job,

or they need a job." It's true.

They do need work.

They need decent work in order to support their families,

but because of that necessity, they are often abused and exploited.

I think we need to flip that narrative that so many countries

throughout the Arab states,

their economies would collapse without migrant worker support.

These people thereby should be protected in labour laws,

and thereby should be protected without having to pay for a job

or unscrupulous schemes for migrants.

I think we need to flip the narrative of who has the power

and who needs it because people who are at the front

of supply chains are always the first and hardest to be hit.

Now, you've both spoken very clearly about the need for change.

From your experience, what has actually proven

to be the most effective ways of tackling modern slavery, and forced labour?

What perhaps are some of the challenges

involved in actually putting these actions into place?

I know Grace agrees with me.

One of the fundamental issues here is also for this issue,

I will say, that we always haven't been great at centring people

when we are coming up with solutions.

Because of how emotional people get about this issue,

I find that sometimes we haven't centred people with lived experience

in developing solutions.

I would start by centring people.

I would think some of the issues that Grace and I have spoken about,

who gets priority when it comes to protection as a worker is embedded

in things like racism.

If we centre people, we will think about things like racism,

we will think about gender when we are coming up with solutions.

I will say that developing solutions that centre people with lived experience,

that think about how we address both root causes,

and how we also take care of people

that are experiencing abuse right now is really important.

Of course, when it comes to things like supply chains,

we've seen tariffs in policy work as an effective thing

because Grace spoke about when you think about the money--

When people's items are held in,

when people can't sell their products as a result of forced labour

in their supply chain,

people want to address it,

people want to think about it.

Definitely, some of those things have worked.

The other thing for me is also,

we know that we have all the rights

that we have as a result of the labour movements,

as a result of trade unions.

If you look at Europe, if you look at anywhere in the world,

rights were fought by workers and mainly through trade unions.

We see that more and more in the world,

the trade union movement is crashing.

Worker rights are no longer a priority.

We need to think about grievance mechanisms.

We need to think about how we bring that up

because the reality is people don't want to be rescued.

People don't want to be saved.

People are demanding for their rights.

Actually, leveraging that in the current human rights space

and ensuring that we use those tools is extremely important

in pushing the needle.

We have to talk about ethical recruitment of workers

and how they get protections within the system.

That has not yet been figured out.

Some policies just need to change.

We need to have solidarity and hold people accountable.

Grace, you mentioned earlier the importance of social protection,

and Sophie, you mentioned as well,

respecting workers' rights as being

a critical tool for tackling modern slavery.

Now how much do you think of those issues

is it the responsibility of governments,

or how much perhaps is the responsibility of the private sector,

of companies, of workers and their representatives?

Part of the problem has been in how we talk about government

as a separate entity from people

because then people don't think that they have a responsibility

in holding their governments accountable

if they see governments as a separate entity.

This is just my activism hat out.

Governments are supposed to represent people.

By empowering people to hold governments accountable,

and that governments represent them in the way

that they should be represented, that is important.

Sophie, I just love you so much.

I couldn't have said that better.

That is exactly right.

Governments work for people,

and they're meant to represent people.

Every single person's voice matters and counts in this.

Whether you're a consumer, whether you're a voter,

your voice matters, please don't underestimate it.

The quickest way any of us give up our power is by not knowing

how much of it we have.

Building off that, I would say, this is absolutely the responsibility

thereby of governments and their people to step up and say enough.

Nowhere does this responsibility sit heavier

than on the world's most powerful nations, the G20.

80% of all forced labour cases are occurring

in supply chains.

80% of the world's trade is happening by and for the G20.

If your country within the G20 does not have modern slavery legislation,

they are actively part of the problem.

If your country does have modern slavery legislation,

let me promise you it probably needs amending.

I say that as an Australian,

I'm proud that we have an Australian modern slavery act,

but it is not strong enough.

It does not have teeth.

There is promise with the New Zealand legislation.

There is serious promise with the laws the EU are considering

as tabled by Germany,

looking at proactive human rights' due diligence, but to be blunt,

progress to date is not enough. We're looking down the barrel

of increasing vulnerability and diminishing political will.

Governments, for some reason, have been let off the hook

for dealing with one disaster at a time like small building blocks

instead of as a holistic intersectional set of problems.

If your country is talking about climate crisis,

they're talking about modern slavery.

If your government representatives are talking about gender equality,

they're talking about modern slavery.

All these issues intersect.

I think to your point on business,

absolutely businesses hold huge responsibility outside of governments.

There are multinational businesses operating with bottom lines

greater than some countries' GDPs,

and multinationals are driving the exploitation around the world.

Businesses can step up and do this before governments mandate them.

You should definitely be looking around what you are consuming,

buying, and using every day, and asking these questions

because if you cannot see the people behind these products,

if they cannot proactively tell you what they're doing to protect people,

I strongly encourage you to assume that exploitation is occurring.

What is needed now to continue global efforts to eliminate

modern slavery and forced labour, and to actually make a difference

so that we're not just seeing in a couple of years' time

at the next estimates

that the numbers have, once again, gone up?

If you were to pick perhaps one issue or one thing

that could be done to really end modern slavery,

what would that be, Sophie and Grace?

I would say shifting the narrative

because I believe the Bible does say lack of knowledge leads

to people perishing.

For me, the main issue is the lack of knowledge

because if people can know, then people can hold people accountable

because there's a lot of accountability that needs to be done.

That accountability cannot be done without proper knowledge

or when people are misinformed about what the issue is.

That's why reports like this are important

because people can be informed about what is the right knowledge

about this issue.

For me, first of all,

I would just say at a personal level,

it is possible to educate yourself and have the right--

The narrative around this issue needs to change.

It is not a siloed issue.

It is an issue that affects all of us.

It's an issue that affects you and I.

The report is very clear.

It happens everywhere in the world,

it's everywhere around you,

and knowing that that is connected to every single thing

that we do will maybe allow us to wake up

and imagine better solutions

than what we've come up with.

For me, would be shifting the narrative.

Grace, what would you add to that?

I completely echo Sophie's points.

I would say with shifting the narrative and gaining knowledge,

please start that process with listening to survivors

because lived experiences' expertise,

people with this lived experience have the greatest ideas

and solutions that are happening in their communities

and throughout the world that we are all connected to.

I think remembering that slavery never occurs in isolation,

that our current system is built off the exploitation of others,

but please don't feel disheartened when I say that

because our system is built by people for people,

and we can also rebuild it,

and we are going through massive changes in our world right now.

Now is the time to look deeply at the systems that we are living within

and to start to shift power structures

in the way we want to build our futures on.

Sophie, Grace, thank you so much for joining us today.

I'm sure all of our listeners join me in wishing you every success.

Since the two of you spoke so much

about the importance of educating ourselves,

then to our audience,

if you want to know more about modern slavery

or about the work of Sophie Otiende and Grace Forrest.

Please, visit our podcast websites at voices.ilo.org,

where you'll find plenty of links and other information

on how you can get involved.

For now, let me wish you goodbye until the next episode

of the ILO Future of Work Podcast.

One in every 150 people are trapped in modern slavery

© Thierry Falise / IOM