45 million people in servitude!

The 2016 Global Slavery Index, published by Perth-based Walk Free Foundation, estimates that 45.8 million people are subject to some form of modern slavery in the world today. This number is 10 million more than the last survey in 2014! The Index presents a ranking of 167 countries based on the proportion of the population that is estimated to be in modern slavery. Due to the ongoing conflict and extreme disruption to government function, ratings for Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria or Yemen are not included.

Modern slavery includes inter-generational bonded labour, forced child labour, commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, forced recruitment into non-state armed groups and forced marriage. Vulnerability to modern slavery is affected by a complex interaction of factors related to the presence or absence of protection and respect for rights, physical safety and security, access to the necessities of life such as food, water and health care, and patterns of migration, displacement and conflict.

The Global Slavery Index for 2016 discovered that up to 4% of the population in some countries is in bondage of some kind. Asia is the worst offender, the study found, with up to 4.37% of people in North Korea and 3.97% of the population in Uzbekistan enslaved. Those countries with the highest absolute numbers of people in modern slavery are India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. The countries with the lowest estimated prevalence of modern slavery by the proportion of their population are Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and Belgium, the United States and Canada, and Australia and New Zealand.

The survey data suggest that there are more than 18 million people or 1.4 percent of the total population, who are living in conditions of modern slavery in India. Fiona David, head of global research at Walk Free, said to Reuters while estimates of slavery had risen by 15 percent in India from the previous figure due to better data collection, government efforts to curb such exploitation had also improved. Quantification of modern slavery in any country is difficult, but is doubly so in a country as large and complex as India.

Anne Gallagher rightly said that by failing to challenge or even gently interrogate the underlying structures that perpetuate and reward exploitation, the index embodies and perpetuates a comforting belief that slavery is all about bad individuals doing bad things to good people. At the root of this belief is an unshakable faith in us being able to eliminate slavery without fundamentally changing how our societies and economies are organised; without a radical shift in the distribution and exercise of political and economic power, including a global economy that depends on the exploitation of poor people’s labour to maintain growth and a global migration system that entrenches vulnerability.

In the words of Peter Buffet, this is not much more than “philanthropic colonialism”, the advocacy and giving that just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.

Some raise doubts on the tools and methodology used by Walk Free to determine the index. Even while we collectively obsesses over numbers and data points, we should also consider dismantling the structures that preserve and nourish a world built solidly on the foundations of human exploitation. We all need to act collectively as well as individually.

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