Abolish modern slavery!

Gabriela Ramos, OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa to the G20

There are 45.8 million slaves in the world today according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, nearly four times the total number of Africans sold in the Americas during the four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. Modern servitude goes under a variety of names such as human trafficking or compulsory labour, fulfilling the prophecy of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, that slavery “will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth.”

One new form is child trafficking in India. It’s designed to meet the demand for household help from the expanding middle class by taking advantage of supply from impoverished rural communities. Deepti Minch was sold to a family in Delhi. “My life was tough. I worked from six in the morning until midnight. I had to cook meals, clean the house, take care of the children and massage the legs of my employers before going to bed.”

Child labour is one of the worst forms of abuse. In the Indian case, the OECD has partnered with Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi on a range of issues related to promoting children’s welfare and well-being. Mr Satyarthi and the grassroots movement founded by him, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), have liberated more than 84,000 children from exploitation and developed a successful model for their education and rehabilitation. Juliane Kippenberg of Human Rights Watch describes how children have been injured and killed in mining accidents, suffered poisoning from mercury used in gold processing, and developed respiratory disease from exposure to dust. She welcomes another OECD initiative to develop practical actions to help identify, mitigate and account for the risks of child labour in the mineral supply chains, for example carry out independent third party audits on the due diligence practices among smelters and refiners.

The issues go far beyond mining. Modern slaves may be sewing the clothes you wear, growing the food you eat, and producing the gadgets that keep you entertained and informed. Around 2 million of them are working for states or rebel groups, and can become trapped in a vicious circle in which militia fight for control of precious resources such as minerals, while the profits from controlling mines fund further conflict. Consumers, business leaders, policy makers, we all have a duty to tackle this crime. And we have the tools to do so.

The 2010 US Dodd-Frank Act obliges public companies to report on products containing minerals that may be benefiting armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The UK government recognised the scale and seriousness of the problem by passing the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.  Prime Minister Theresa May set up a government task force on modern slavery and appointed an Anti-Slavery Commissioner. In an article promising that her government will lead the way in defeating modern slavery, the Prime Minister highlights the human suffering behind the headlines: “people are enduring experiences that are simply horrifying in their inhumanity. Vulnerable people who have travelled long distances believing they were heading for legitimate jobs are finding they have been duped, forced into hard labour, and then locked up and abused.”

The UK legislators are well aware of the complexity of the task facing them, and produced a Practical Guide for companies on transparency in supply chains that recommends the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. They point out that although the OECD Guidelines are not specifically focused on modern slavery (although the Due Diligence Guidelines do include it), “they provide principles and standards for responsible business conduct in areas such as employment and industrial relations and human rights which may help organisations when seeking to respond to or prevent modern slavery”.

Ending slavery is made even more difficult by the size and complexity of supply chains that make it hard to identify who is responsible for ensuring rights are respected at all the locations involved in production. Workers are often employed by subcontractors or sub-subcontractors of MNEs in their own country, and unfortunately it may take a catastrophe like the collapse of garment factories at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 to set change in motion. Following that tragedy, The OECD developed a Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector. This Guidance, elaborated through an intense multi-stakeholder process, supports a common understanding of due diligence and responsible supply chain management in the sector. One of the most notable features is that it doesn’t allow multinationals to use the failings of local contractors as an excuse: “Enterprises should…seek to prevent or mitigate an adverse impact where they have not contributed to that impact, when the impact is nevertheless directly linked to their operations, products or services by a business relationship.”

It doesn’t always take a big disaster to change things though. The OECD and FAO produced due diligence guidance for the agriculture sector that will, among other things, help newcomers to the sector, such as institutional investors, to deal with ethical dilemmas and uphold internationally agreed standards of responsible business conduct, notably in markets with weak governance and insecure land rights. For instance the guidance recognises that regardless of the legal framework in which an operation takes place, indigenous people often have customary or traditional rights based on their relationship to the land, their culture and socio-economic status.

It’s easy to see how workers would benefit from improved conditions and why consumers would choose ethically-sourced products. But it makes good business sense too. The evidence on company performance shows that the ones that behave responsibly towards their employees, the environment, and society do better than the rest.

Modern slavery is a highly internationalised affair, and to end it we need to reinforce international coordination and cooperation. As more countries and sectors step up the fight against slavery and other abuses, our experience with the MNE Guidelines and due diligence guidance is likely to be called upon increasingly. We advocate the approach pioneered in the apparel industry where we work with industry, government, worker organisations, and civil society to elaborate strategies and we have to work together to implement them. We can all learn from each other and use our shared knowledge to expose slavery and help to abolish it. As Frederick Douglass said, “It flourishes best where it meets no reproving frowns, and hears no condemning voices.”

Useful links

Gabriela Ramos is moderating the first session of the 5th Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct, “Responsible global supply chains through due diligence”, taking place at the OECD on 29-30 June. Watch the webcast here

Two hundred girls for sale, millions already sold

Anti-Slavery International was founded 175 years ago
Anti-Slavery International was founded 175 years ago

The announcement by the lunatic who claims to lead Boko Haram that he’s going to sell hundreds of captured Nigerian schoolgirls into slavery shocked most of the world. I say “most” because what he’s proposing isn’t in fact unusual. In Nigeria and across the border in Niger, young girls are sold to men who’ve used up their authorised quota of four wives or who simply want slaves to advertise their prestige. A report by Anti-Slavery International and Association Timidria explains: “‘Wahaya’ are girls and women bought and exploited as property by many dignitaries (mostly religious leaders or wealthy men who bear the title ‘Elhadji’). The women are used for free labour and for the sexual gratification of their masters, who assault them at will when they are not with their legitimate wives.”

A wahaya costs $300 to $800, and 43% of the girls interviewed for the report were sold between the age of 9 and 11 years old, 83% before the age of 15. The girls say it is common for the “master” to force sexual relations on them as soon as they reach puberty. They receive no pay, and are never allowed to leave their family home except to work. Many are also forced to wear a heavy brass ankle ring to signify their slave status.

Tabass Aborak for example was sold three times to three different masters over 12 years, the first time when she was just seven years old. “We had to carry out orders from the master and his wives. Night and day were just the same; each moment that passes brought more work. Only speed and skill in carrying out orders allowed us to avoid the master’s punishments, especially if he was angry at us because of the tales his legitimate wives had been telling him. When this happened we’d be called ‘chegiya’, which means ‘bastard’, or ‘bouzoua’ – ‘useless slave.’” When the family travelled to visit relatives, Tabass followed the horses on foot, carrying the children on her back.

West Africa isn’t the only place where slavery still exists. The 2013 Global Slavery Index estimates that 29.8 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, forced labour, slavery or slavery-like practices (debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, sale or exploitation of children, including in armed conflict). Over three-quarters of the slaves live in just ten countries, mainly in Asia and Africa (in descending order: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, DRC, Myanmar, Bangladesh) but it’s a problem everywhere – nearly 2% of those 29.8 million are in Europe for example.

According to the FBI, an estimated 293,000 American youths are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The children generally come from homes where they have been abused or from families who have abandoned them. The girls first become victims of prostitution at age 12 to 14 on average, while for boys and transgender youth, it’s at age 11 and 13 on average.

The modern slave trade takes advantage of the increased mobility, cheaper travel and the ease of organising international networks that technology and globalisation make possible. It is reinforced by economic misery and absence or removal of social protection, and the illusions engendered by images of a better life elsewhere. How can it be fought?

The “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons” is the leading international instrument. It goes beyond trafficking for forced prostitution and takes into account forced domestic work and commercial marriage. It recommends that governments allow victims to remain in the destination country, temporarily or permanently, ensure their safety and protect their privacy and identity. It also recommends that governments establish legal measures to award victims compensation. The authorities can help victims by protecting them even if they are not prepared to help the investigation of trafficking networks, and they can help migrant victims by not deporting them back to the country they were trafficked from.

The OECD is trying to play a part too. In 2001 already, Trends in International Migration warned that “Organised prostitution networks and illicit immigration rackets are at the root of a modern form of slavery, affecting women in particular. International measures of co-operation need to be stepped up to counter and prevent such exploitation.” However, every study into trafficking (of people, drugs, arms or anything else) states how hard it is to evaluate the scale of the problem. The OECD Task Force on Charting Illicit Trade (TF-CIT) was set up to “co-ordinate international expertise in the quantification and mapping of illicit markets”. This year the TF-CIT is focusing on three areas: mapping the economic activities of transnational criminal networks; examining the conditions and policies that encourage or inhibit different sectors of illegal trades, whether at the level of production, transit or consumption; and developing visualisation tools to help decision makers better target prevention and mitigation efforts.

In the meantime, here’s how one of the slave owners interviewed by Timidria sees things: “To be honest, because I had bought them, I strongly felt that they were slaves that I had paid for and that it was their duty to obey my orders under all circumstances. They are always visible because they are always busy, while my legal wives are housed at the back of my compound and are not accessible to just anyone, as our religion prescribes. No one is surprised by this, and everyone was happy with their situation.”

Useful links

OECD work on gender

Born a girl: bad karma?

international women's dayThe ILO estimates that at least 2.45 million trafficking victims are currently working in exploitative conditions worldwide, and that another 1.2 million are trafficked annually, both across and within national borders. Of these, up to 80% are women and girls according to the UN.

A widely-quoted UN estimate says that human trafficking and slavery is the third most lucrative illicit business in the world after arms and drug trafficking, although the UN doesn’t actually give any source for this claim. That could be because of the inherent difficulty in obtaining data on criminal activity or because the estimate includes other activities like taking money to smuggle illegal immigrants into a country. The US Department of State definition of trafficking is “all of the criminal conduct involved in forced labor and sex trafficking, essentially the conduct involved in reducing or holding someone in compelled service.”

Why does it still happen, and why are women the main victims? Economics, culture and tradition are all to blame.

Economically, you can look at it on the global or local level. Trafficking and the modern slave trade are driven by the same factors that encourage other aspects of globalisation such as increased mobility, cheaper travel and the ease of organising international networks. They are also reinforced by economic misery and absence or removal of social protection in countries opening up to the international economy, and the illusions engendered by images of a better life elsewhere on satellite television and other easily accessible mass media.

It sounds cynical, but you can also look at trafficking of women in terms of supply and demand factors, as the World Bank does here. For instance, on the demand side, employers want cheap labour, and not just in the sex industry. In 2004, the Council of Europe drew attention to the fact that domestic slaves are predominantly female and usually work in private households, starting out as migrant workers, au pairs or “mail-order brides”.

The supply of women and girls is maintained by poverty (some UN estimates say that nearly 70% of the world’s poor are women) and lack of opportunity. But social norms that consider women as inferior play a role too. Religion is one of these, and the World Bank report linked to above says that one of the factors pushing women into prostitution in the Mekong region is that under Theravada Buddhism, “women and girls are thought to be unable to achieve enlightenment. Thus, while men can show gratitude and respect to their parents by becoming monks and pursuing the spiritual life, many girls feel that they must make sacrifices for the benefit of their families, villages and their own karma.”

In addition, as this short guide published by the OECD points out, trafficking often emerges where many human rights violations are prevalent already. The most common violations are the right to personal autonomy, the right not to be held in slavery or servitude, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to be free from cruel or inhumane treatment, the right to safe and healthy working conditions and the freedom of movement. Governments can be guilty too, even towards people who have escaped from trafficking. Policies often give priority to detention, prosecution and expulsion of trafficked persons for offences related to their status, including violation of immigration laws, prostitution or begging. Victims may be treated as “disposable witnesses” whose sole value is their ability to assist in prosecuting traffickers.

What can be done?

The 2003 “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons” is the leading international instrument. It goes beyond trafficking for forced prostitution and takes into account other forms, including forced domestic work and commercial marriage. These aren’t just problems in developing countries. The slaves referred to by the Council of Europe were working in its member countries. Earlier this week, the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit reported that a two-year-old girl was among the victims it helped last year.

The 2003 Protocol recommends that governments allow victims of trafficking to remain in the destination country, temporarily or permanently. Governments should also ensure their safety and protect their privacy and identity. It also recommends that governments establish legal measures to award victims compensation.

At national level, efforts in source countries to tackle poverty and lack of rights would strike at the root of the problem, but a number of measures can have more immediate impacts, such as awareness-raising campaigns, given that many victims are deceived into migrating. Given the importance of poverty in fuelling trafficking, funding to start small businesses could help women.

Destination countries can contribute to such programmes. They can also help victims by protecting them even if they are not prepared to help the authorities investigating the trafficking networks, and not deporting them back to the country they were trafficked from.

Useful links

A Women’s Day Challenge, article on the educationtoday blog by Barbara Ischinger, OECD Director for Education and Skills

OECD work on gender

OECD work on gender equality and development

Evaluation of the International Organization for Migration and its Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking  

Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Regional conference to combat child trafficking