More than 200 years after the international slave trade was formally abolished, the terrible truth is there has never been a better time to sell a human life than today. Business is booming for the criminals who engage in human trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery, not just across Asia, Africa and the Americas, but in mainland Europe and across the Channel into Britain too.
Every day, traffickers are pushing desperate men, women and children into the hell of modern slavery in the knowledge that their crime is almost cost-free. There should be no hiding place for criminals who trade in people, but the likelihood of criminal exploiters being put behind bars is remote. While there are 50 million people living in modern slavery worldwide, only 15,159 traffickers were prosecuted in 2022 and just 5,577 guilty verdicts were returned, equating to one conviction for every 8,965 victims.
This weekend’s G20 leaders’ summit in New Delhi can seize the opportunity to ensure the UN’s goal of eradicating modern slavery by 2030 does not fade from view. I have written to the summit host, Narendra Modi, prime minister of India – the country with the highest number of people living in modern slavery – asking him to place on the G20 agenda the abject failure of any government in any part of the world to close down the slave traders. To put the size of the industry into context, its profits, which are nothing less than blood money, total more than $150bn (£118.5bn) annually.
Convictions against people-trafficking are so low that in the whole of the Americas, from Canada and the US to Argentina and Brazil, just 256 convictions were recorded last year. The UK is recognised in the Global Slavery Index as tougher on modern slavery, but while nearly 23,000 potential victims were identified in Britain from 2017 to 2019, only 64 offenders were sentenced for modern slavery and human trafficking offences under the Modern Slavery Act. Small wonder the traffickers, whose boats cross the Channel, feel they can act with impunity.
This low clear-up rate is all the more shameful because human slavery, the most heinous and barbaric of all crimes, is degrading 28 million men and women through forced labour and demeaning conditions – and causing lifelong desolation to 22 million girls and women, who have been forced into marriage against their will.
The scale of modern-day human enslavement means we all lose. For as the UN security council has stated, human trafficking is a “tactic of terrorism” and a significant source of terrorists’ funds.
Yet slavery prosecutions are in decline. In 2015, there were 19,000 prosecutions worldwide; by 2022 the figure was almost 4,000 fewer. As former prime minister Theresa May told the Commons in July, the Illegal Migration Act will soon contribute to an alarming rise in human slavery. The act no longer requires authorities to identify victims of modern slavery before their return to their country of origin and fails to provide the support and protection necessary to enable victims to give evidence to expose their exploiters, thereby rendering it unlikely that traffickers are investigated. As a result, a human trafficking victim who arrives in the UK and who has been raped, or their family threatened, may just be turned away.
Current reporting of slavery to the authorities is so low that last year only 115,000 victims were identified worldwide, with the majority of victims escaping from traffickers and alerting the authorities themselves, as opposed to being rescued by law enforcement. Yet not far from where each of us live, there will be a trafficked boy or girl, man or woman, working as a domestic servant, car washer or assembly worker. And many of us will buy items, including premium brands, that involve human trafficking or forced labour in their manufacture.
Religious organisations led by the G20 Interfaith Forum have highlighted the “urgent need” for G20 countries – which account for more than 75% of the world’s trade – to address crimes too often hidden in plain sight. It will need coordinated action by the G20 to reform global supply chains and puncture the complacency of well-known clothing, electronics and other brands that have been wilfully ignoring the slave trade. This action must include a call for the global introduction of due diligence laws that require businesses to monitor and report on the risks of slavery in their supply chains. So far, countries including Norway, France and Germany have adopted such laws and, to her credit, Theresa May is setting up a global commission on modern slavery and human trafficking that is likely to make the case for extending such legislation worldwide.
It was in 2016, when the sustainable development goals for 2030 were being formulated by the UN, that Pope Francis urged nations around the world to help enslaved people and prosecute traffickers. There has followed seven lean years, during which little progress has been made. Now with just seven years left to meet the 2030 goal, the G20 must start to live up to its claim to be the world’s premier economic forum – and intensify its mission to eradicate the modern slave trade.
Gordon Brown is the UN envoy for global education and was UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010
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