UK doing more than any other country to end scourge of modern slavery

Sarah Newey
A Lithuanian woman who was trafficked and held against her will in London - Justin Sutcliffe

Britain is doing more than any other country to combat modern slavery and human trafficking, but progress to eradicate these practices across the globe remains “disgracefully marginal”, a major report has warned. 

Roughly 40.3 million people are currently being held as modern-day slaves, including 24.9 million in forced labour and 15.4 million held in forced marriage. Some 70 per cent of those being exploited are women. 

But although the target to end modern slavery by 2030 was included in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, progress has been “hugely disappointing”, according to a report tracking the responses of 183 governments worldwide. 

Launched on Wednesday by the Walk Free Foundation, the study found that half of countries have made either no meaningful improvements or gone backwards in the last four years.

In 47 nations human trafficking is yet to be criminalised, while forced labour and forced marriage remain legal in 96 and 133 countries respectively. 

“The report in itself is exciting [because] we have government action we can measure,” Andrew Forrest, founder of Walk Free Foundation, told The Telegraph. 

“Five or 10 years ago nothing was happening – to all the world it was as if modern slavery didn’t exist... Yet progress has been at a glacial pace.”

But despite slow improvements the UK has taken more action than any other nation to respond to modern slavery – overtaking the Netherlands, which had held the top spot since 2014. 

The report highlights the success of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 - championed by Theresa May when she was home secretary - which led to more training for first responders, such as healthcare staff and foster carers.

And in 2018 there was the first conviction for forced marriage in an English court, when a mother was found guilty of tricking her 18-year-old daughter into marrying a man 16 years her senior

“It is not a surprise that the UK is a world leader as it recently passed the Modern Slavery Act to combat this scourge,” Dr Meghan Campbell, deputy director of the Oxford Human Rights Hub and law lecturer at Birmingham University, told The Telegraph. “But like any piece of legislation it is imperfect.”

The UK is one of just three countries with legislation mandating companies to report on the risk of forced labour within their supply chains – despite estimates that 16 million exploited people participate in the global economy.

But Dr Campbell said there were shortcomings in the government's approach. 

“Modern slavery is a global problem and UK based companies profit from modern slavery in complex global supply chains,” she said. “The biggest problem is that the UK approach lacks teeth.

“Companies are meant to report on their efforts, in the hope that naming and shaming will prompt them to change their business practices that rely on modern slavery. 

“But there is no legal punishment if they fail to do this. And without the ‘stick’ of the law we have not seen an end to modern slavery,” Dr Campbell added. 

Restrictive and discriminatory migration policies – in particular the detainment and deportation of foreign exploitation victims – are another barrier the UK government is yet to address, says the report.

Along with similar policies in the EU, Australia and the US, this continues to be a key driver of modern slavery. 

“There is no government globally that has a perfect response [to modern slavery],” said Katharine Bryant, research manager at the Walk Free Foundation. “In many countries – despite having these great responses on paper – action is undermined by discriminatory migration policies, for example the hostile environment policy in the UK.”

But at the other end of the scale, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran and Equatorial Guinea are ranked as the worst countries in the world for tackling modern slavery due to government complicity, a lack of political will or corruption.

Almost a fifth of those exploited around the world – roughly 6.9 million people – live in the 10 countries taking the least action. 

The report says that in North Korea – where there are a staggering 2.6 million victims of modern slavery in a country of just over 25 million – the government is “actively enslaving part of their population”.

In particular, there are significant questions about whether workers sent on government contracts to China and Russia are doing so voluntarily. There are also reports of forced labour being used in camps where inmates are subjected to violence and their families threatened. 

Mr Forrest said that international pressure from governments, charities and businesses could play a role in tackling modern slavery in places like North Korea, but countries such as the UK must not ignore exploitation within their own borders.

“We have come a very long way within the last decade… and victory is within sight,” he said. “We are calling on Britain and other countries to conduct their own modern slavery surveys within their populations, and to do so immediately. 

“These baseline surveys will disclose the measures governments need to take to end modern slavery. If we take informed action plans enacted in an organised, business-like way, we will end modern slavery by 2030,” Mr Forrest added. 

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