Review: Five reasons I’m optimistic despite the grim statistics on forced labor

Editor’s note: Terry FitzPatrick is director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a US-based coalition of organizations working to prevent and combat forced labor and human trafficking in more than 100 countries. He is writing in his personal capacity as an expert with 14 years of experience in the field of anti-trafficking. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.


Understandably, last week’s news about the scope of forced labor was disappointing. Despite two decades of efforts by governments, international organizations and civil society organizations, more people are being exploited around the world than ever before.

But I see last week’s global estimates of modern slavery as more than a statistical snapshot. For me, this is an urgent call to increase spending and expand programs to address the root causes of one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time. We can end forced labor if we invest sufficient resources to address the enormity of the problem.

In the report, researchers from the International Labor Organization, the International Organization for Migration and Walk Free estimated that 50 million people are trapped in slavery today, and 28 million people are working against their will in three forms of forced labor worldwide. labor:

  • 17.3 million people are exploited in factories, construction sites, mines, farms, as domestic workers in private homes and in other businesses.
  • 6.3 million people have been forced into commercial sexual exploitation.
  • 3.9 million people are forced by governments to work in prison factories and other settings.

Related: 50 million trapped in modern slavery, report finds

Although these data indicate a significant increase in forced labor since the research team’s previous report five years ago, which found 25 million people in forced labor, new developments that give reason for hope have also been promising in recent years.

Here are the top five developments on my list:

Governments are beginning to demand that companies eradicate forced labor from the global economy. France, for example, now requires large companies to investigate their supply chains to address forced labor vulnerabilities and problems they encounter. The U.S. has expanded enforcement of a long-standing ban on importing contaminated foreign goods. The US also now believes that all goods in China’s Xinjiang region are produced by Uyghurs trapped in vast forced labor facilities, and those goods are embargoed unless a company can prove a shipment is untainted.

The US Trade Representative is developing ways to deal with forced labor provisions in trade agreements. These developments spread the burden of dealing with forced labor and emphasize the value of prevention.

Addressing human trafficking in supply chains

Some companies are taking action on their own. UPS has trained delivery drivers, Delta Airlines has trained cabin crew, and Marriott hotel workers have been trained to recognize the telltale signs of forced labor and what to do when they see them. Companies such as Walmart, McDonalds, and Whole Foods participate in the Fair Food Program to purchase vegetables from farms that are free from forced labor as a result of employee-driven social responsibility programs. Practical resources such as the Responsible Sourcing Toolkit, Know the Chain and Comply Chain support companies looking to avoid forced labor when purchasing raw materials.

Fighting modern slavery on Florida farms

Despite the polarized political environment, Democrats and Republicans have worked together to renew landmark legislation that supports federal anti-labor programs in the US and around the world, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The four-bill reauthorization package includes important policy improvements. The House has already passed part of the package by a vote of 401 to 20, demonstrating that tackling forced labor has strong bipartisan support. The final passage is expected soon.

Forced labor often occurs in communities where international programs are working to improve decent work opportunities, food security, education, gender equality, health, access to water and sanitation and other development goals. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been integrating components to combat forced labor in these other programs. This accelerates the growth of field activities by tapping into the programming infrastructure already in place. USAID has also taken steps to integrate forced labor programs into humanitarian assistance for refugees from the war in Ukraine.

Related: Millions of women and children have fled the war in Ukraine. Traffickers are waiting to catch them

No one knows more about forced labor than those who have experienced it. But for too long, their expertise has been lacking in discussions about solutions. That is changing. Groups like the National Survivor Network and Survivor Alliance are bringing together those with lived experience to ensure they become decision-making leaders. This is creating innovative ideas, greater authenticity and renewed momentum.

These are just a few of the many positive developments that show that the movement to end forced labor is growing stronger and more effective in recent years.

Global prevalence studies document that this is a persistent challenge that will require a whole-of-society approach to overcome. And last week’s report highlights the need to focus on social and economic inequality, military conflict, climate change and unsafe migration, all of which make people vulnerable.

But the conclusion should not be that we are losing the battle, because the number of estimated victims is increasing. It should be noted that our movement needs significant new funding to continue to increase what it is working on, to get the job done.