efe-epaBy Isabel Saco and Irene Escudero. Geneva/Nairobi

If all of the world’s slaves were to form a country, it would have a larger population than that of Canada.

The latest Global Slavery Index, which gathers data from the Free Walk Foundation and the International Organisation for Migration, shows that there are over 40.3 million people living or working under conditions of slavery.

According to the International Labour Organisation, Asia and the Pacific region is home to the second largest number of people working in these situations, at a rate of 6.1 per 1000 people, behind Africa.

At four out of every 1,000 people, Asia-Pacific is the region with the highest prevalence of forced labor, and is again second behind Africa for forced marriages (2.0 per 1,000), the two most common forms of modern slavery.

These figures do not account for those people suffering similar conditions in conflict zones, on migration routes or in remote areas that are difficult to access.

Luiz Antonio Machada of the ILO said the figures are collated from labor inspections, court cases and household surveys, an approach which inevitably excludes many of the world’s most marginalized people from the statistics.

Of the 40.3 million people considered to be modern slaves, 24.9 million are exploited through forced labor, while 15.4 million are the victims of forced marriage, the vast majority of whom are women and children, who live in servitude through inherited debts.

The first group is made up of women and men who are forced into prostitution, unpaid domestic workers and child laborers (4.3 million).

Women and girls are also disproportionately affected by modern slavery, accounting for 71 percent of the overall total.

According to Machado, “each region of the world has its own form of slavery” that is concentrated in specific economic sectors. In Asia-Pacific, 16 million slaves are mostly concentrated in the poorly regulated fishing and agricultural sectors, while in Latin America, the farming sector is where most modern slaves are concentrated.

In Europe and Central Asia, sexual exploitation is the most common form of slavery, and in the Middle East, most modern slaves - many from Asian countries - work in domestic services and construction.

Slavery in its most traditional form is most prevalent in Africa’s agricultural sectors, where “situations in which one person is the property of another, and this status is inherited by the slave’s children," Machado says. Kenyan researcher Agnes Odhiambo calls this “death bondage."

In a recent article published in African Arguments, activist Graca Machel, the widow of Nelson Mandela, warned that child sexual exploitation in Africa is a “silent emergency," a phenomenon that is exacerbated by technology and the increase of sex tourism.

In addition to these forms of exploitation, Odhiambo highlights other less conventional ones, such as “baby factories” in Nigeria, in which women are kidnapped and forced to get pregnant: “they can sell the children, they can sell the organs of the baby and the mother.”

AN ECONOMY THAT ATTRACTS SLAVERY

“While there has been a massive increase in debates on human rights and equality, I don’t think there has ever been a period in history in which forms of slavery are so diverse as they are today,” Ivorian sociologist and professor at the Alassane Outtara University, Fahiraman Rodrigue Kone told EFE.

But while we abhor the slave trade between Africa and America that sustained cotton plantations until less than two centuries ago, few stop to consider the conditions suffered by children harvesting cocoa in the Ivory Coast, working in mines in the Congo or in textile factories in Bangladesh.

“I think modern slavery is directly linked to our global production chains and the free trade system which helps perpetuate slavery in certain regions or sectors,” Kone said.

He cites the cocoa and coffee sectors as examples, which are supported by local workforces and in which exploitation is thriving at unprecedented levels.

Researchers believe that the lower down a worker is in a global supply chain, the harder it is to identify the problem, particularly with more elaborate ones, such as the electronics industry.

Mines from which essential materials are gathered for the manufacture or electronics such as computers, mobile phones and tablets rely on the use of modern slaves.

“We are still on the same traditional path of an imperialist economy dating from the 17th century that has systematically kept slavery alive,” Kone said.

Joel Quirk, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, says the absence of protection of migrants and laborers, particularly in developing nations, creates the conditions that allow for their exploitation.

“The global workforce has never been as mobile as it is today, but migrant workers are exposed to a disproportionate risk of exploitation and abuse when looking for employment opportunities far from home,” IOM expert Mathieu Luciano said.

According to the IOM, nearly a quarter of all forced laborers are exploited away from their homelands.

Faced with rampant unemployment and exposed to socio-economic exclusion, many of the world’s youth are willing to do whatever it takes to escape this cycle of poverty and exploitation.

“There are many pathways to either precarious employment, exploitation, into trafficking, into forced slavery or into exploited labor,” said Dr Zaheera Jinnah, Researcher at the University of Witwatersrand, African Centre for Migration and Society.

“Unless there is enough jobs, affordable houses, education, security, people will still continue to take risks, even if they have bad experiences, because it is still the hope that one person will do well.”

The force driving modern slavery is hugely lucrative business - behind only arms smuggling and drug trafficking - which the IOM values at 150 billion dollars per year.

Given this landscape, achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating modern slavery by 2030 would seem close to impossible.

“There has to be a shift in attitude and culture. As long as human beings continue to exploit their neighbors, it will be very difficult,” Machado said. EFE-EPA

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