Crisis moment as the world enters next decade of fighting modern slavery

Wednesday, 02 December 2020
by Dr Katarina Schwarz, Rights Lab, University of Nottingham

Today on International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, the University of Nottingham’s
Rights Lab is hosting the Universitas 21 annual Early Career Researcher (ECR) Workshop, bringing together more than 40 international researchers to form a new global network of ECRs who research modern slavery.

The global meeting is the most international and interdisciplinary group of early career researchers ever assembled on the topic of modern slavery. By the time the meeting ends, the group will have mapped the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target for ending slavery (target 8.7) to all the other SDGs, identifying a way forward for tackling slavery as a key SDG issue. It will also have launched as a new organisation of early career researchers working together on the topic of modern slavery and how to achieve SDG 8.7 by 2030.

Here Dr Katarina Schwarz, Assistant Professor of Antislavery Law and Policy, and Rights Lab Associate Director, reflects on the five years since the UN set this goal, and what needs to happen in the next 10 years to meet it.

Dr Katarina Schwarz, Rights Lab Associate Director (Law and Policy Programme) and Assistant Professor of Antislavery Law and Policy

"In 2015 the UN launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals, known as UN SDGs, with 169 targets to be achieved by 2030, which were adopted unanimously by 193 Heads of State and other top leaders at a summit at the UN Headquarters.

SDG 8, to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all, encompasses 12 targets, with Target 8.7 calling for meaningful efforts to eradicate modern slavery by 2030.

SDG Target 8.7: Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.

In the five years since the collective agreement was made by all 193 UN member states, we have seen great gains in international collaboration and coordination to work towards ending modern slavery. Yet, there is still much work to be done.

In 2015, all States committed themselves to taking ‘immediate and effective’ antislavery measures. It’s difficult to imagine such measures not including legal prohibition
of slavery — legislation, after all, is a fundamental first step towards effective antislavery. However, almost half of all countries in the world have yet to make it a crime to enslave another human being. Legal ownership of people was indeed abolished in all countries over the course of the last two centuries. But in many countries it has not been criminalised. In almost half of the world’s countries, there is no criminal law penalising either slavery or the slave trade. In 94 countries, you cannot be prosecuted and punished in a criminal court for enslaving another human being.

While many States have taken action in the past five years to improve their antislavery and anti-trafficking laws, there are still immense gaps between States’ international commitments and obligations (as well as best practice and non-binding standards) and their domestic laws. Our Rights Lab Law and Policy programme works to help bridge this gap, underpinning legislative and policy advocacy with robust, global research. Almost 100 years since the adoption of the Slavery Convention, we need to ensure that States take this fundamental first step, and effectively engage the machinery of the state in the fight against slavery and exploitation.

But we don’t just need to take this first step, we need to make giant leaps forward to scale-up antislavery efforts — to work at pace, and on a large-scale. ILO and Walk Free estimates suggest that 40.3 million people across the world experienced modern slavery in 2016.

This is a huge number of people that must be empowered to exit slavery and supported towards sustained liberation. Early in 2019, this would have meant freeing 9,000 people from modern slavery every day if we hope to achieve SDG 8.7 by 2030. Now, it means over 12,000 people every day — and that’s without accounting for increases in exploitation made likely by crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, we must develop ways to effectively prevent thousands of new cases of exploitation from arising — creating the social, political, and economic conditions that prevent slavery from taking root in communities.

To help create safe, slavery-free communities, my colleague Dr Alison Gardner and the Rights Lab’s Communities and Society Programme are working on ‘place-based' approaches to coordinating anti-slavery action. This work focuses on distinct geographical communities, towns and cities, offering the possibility of connecting law enforcement, governance, voluntary and faith responses to modern slavery in a more effective and coherent way. Dr Gardner and the Communities team are working with antislavery researchers across the globe in establishing the first global 'slavery-free cities' network. These resilient communities provide a potential solution to the ongoing challenges of prevention, and a long-term mechanism to ensure sustainable eradication of slavery.

While resilient communities must be a core feature of the next ten years of antislavery, societies are not always stable, and instability requires a distinct antislavery toolkit.
Research by the Rights Lab has shown that slavery and conflict are closely intertwined, with slavery and trafficking present in 90% of the wars that have occurred in the past thirty years. Professor Kevin Bales’ conflict database helps us to better understand the relationship between conflict and exploitation. Now, we need to use this evidence to develop better programming to address enslavement and exploitation in conflict, and in its aftermath.

Not only do enslavement and exploitation occur within conflicts, but forced displacement and migration driven by violence and instability also create situations of extreme vulnerability to exploitation. Refugees, asylum seekers, displaced persons, and irregular migrants have all been recognised as communities particular ‘at-risk’ of exploitation. Given the increasing number of people migrating globally — whether as a result of displacement or in the pursuit of economic opportunity — our antislavery work must grapple with the specific challenges, identities, and vulnerabilities of people on the move.

The reasons for this global movement are also rapidly diversifying and changing.
Global environmental changes intersect with other socioeconomic and political developments, influencing the changing patterns of both migration and modern slavery globally. Conflict and slavery have been linked to situations of natural resource scarcity, and climate change and environmental degradation have been identified as ‘risk multipliers’ that will continue to shape and reshape the dynamics of slavery and exploitation. Conversely, modern slavery itself contributes to environmental degradation — meaning that sustainable efforts to address modern slavery can also have flow-on benefits for the natural world. Dr Jess Sparks, and the Rights Lab’s Environment and Ecosystems Programme work to understand this nexus, and to develop solutions to address both these critical global challenges in tandem.

Antislavery is not only for public and third sector actors — private sector antislavery action is also a critical piece of the puzzle, and necessary to effectively and sustainably address human exploitation. In the past five years, we have witnessed corporate leaders across the globe taking the initiative to be antislavery champions. Governments have also taken the challenge of addressing modern slavery in supply chains, with several countries (including the UK, Australia, France, and the Netherlands) enacting laws to address corporate antislavery obligations. Dr Alex Trautrims and the Rights Lab’s Business and Economies Programme directly support this activity, working with organisations and governments to assess and address risks of modern slavery in supply chains. Addressing the critical challenge created by complex global supply chains and combatting corporate apathy and abuses, the Business team are helping to create slavery-free supply chains and supporting diffusion of good labour practices and supply chain management.

In order to know that these approaches are working, and to ensure we are investing in the right interventions, we need robust evidence. We need to understand what works, where, and for whom. The past five years have seen increasing impetus for rigorous monitoring and evaluation of antislavery efforts. International organisations, governments, civil society, and funders have integrated monitoring and evaluation activities into their work, and made this a priority. In the next five years, we need to double-down on this focus. Investments in monitoring and evaluation must continue to be priorities. But more than this, we need international coordination around this assessment to collect and develop comparable datasets that can tell us about what works on broader scale. And we need honesty about what doesn’t work, so we can learn the lessons of these efforts too. By doing this we can measure success, double down on what works, and then scale up.

Measurement of modern slavery has always been difficult, however, because of its hidden and clandestine nature. Rights Lab research has also provided robust evidence of modern slavery in hard to reach areas across the world. Professor Doreen Boyd leads the Rights Lab’s Data and Measurement Programme, including a current UK Space Agency-funded project, “Anti-Trafficking using Satellite Technology for Uganda’s Sustainability (ASTUS), that is developing a stakeholder-informed Modern Anti-trafficking Support System (MASS) underpinned by satellite imagery and associated geospatial datasets, to help enhance Uganda’s anti-trafficking efforts. This builds on Professor Boyd’s previous work with “Slavery from Space,” and expertise in using satellite imagery to take observations and measurements of Earth. Dr Chloe Brown has had a new paper published on use of satellite technology to monitor child labour activity in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This research, this innovation, provides a new window into slavery and antislavery. It is with these new insights and new evidence that we are able to tackle a problem that has persisted for thousands of years in new ways. As I see it, research is more important than ever in the antislavery space. More effective interventions that are scalable and sustainable, are needed to achieve immediate and successful measures to eradicate slavery by 2030.

Today I am in a room full of early career scholars—the next generation of antislavery researchers. We have the chance to fundamentally change the space and do something that hasn’t been done in thousands of years: help end slavery.

I am calling for all of my colleagues in attendance today to join the Antislavery Early Research Association, an international network of postgraduates and early career researchers dealing with all aspects of slavery and antislavery research from the historical to the contemporary. This collaborative network of active, engaged researchers from around the globe will continue to work together across borders, to bridge the gaps between research and antislavery action, and to deliver new data, methods, approaches, and understandings that change the face of global antislavery.

As we pass the five-year mark on the SDGs and enter the next 10 years of antislavery, many evidence-gaps and challenges remain. This moment is not simply about accelerating our efforts — given what we are seeing, we need to seriously reckon with the potential direction of antislavery movements at this moment in time. We stand in a time of crisis that raises these obstacles even higher. But it also represents a pivotal moment — an opportunity to embed protective measures into our governance frameworks and into our social frameworks that will actually serve to better protect people longer term.

I invite this new generation of antislavery scholars to help develop and deliver the evidence we need to end slavery, and to ensure that this research speaks not only to other scholars, but to policy, to practice, and most importantly, to survivors."

Katie Andrews - Media Relations Manager Social Sciences
Phone: 0115 951 5751

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Notes to editors:

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