The Problem with Slavery and the SDGs

By Aidan McQuade, Director, Anti Slavery International

The Problem with Slavery and the SDGs

The inclusion of slavery eradication in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is recognition by the international community that, until now, many of the world’s poorest people had been comprehensively ignored in the wider struggle to end poverty.

That is a fact confirmed by the number 5.5 million, the International Labour Organization’s most recent estimate of the numbers of children in slavery. It is identical to their previous estimate in 2005 indicating that during this period, international development has completely passed by the millions of children and the tens of millions more adults enslaved across the world.

Since 2007, Anti-Slavery International has been calling for slavery to be acknowledged as a fundamental issue of poverty and development. So this recognition in the SDGs is a crucial step.

But for this recognition to have any practical meaning, words must be translated into a meaningful strategy that places power into the hands of the excluded. This signifies that there is a need for far-reaching reform to address often contentious and profoundly political, cultural, business and labour issues.

These include state-acquiescence in caste or ethnicity-based discrimination, denial of freedom of association and union rights to workers, undermining of rule of national and international law, toleration of child marriage, and the refusal to establish safe migration routes for vulnerable workers seeking decent work.

Hence, for there to be any prospect for meaningful change on these issues, business, trades unions and development organisations, together with government, need to shoulder a shared responsibility to achieve that change.

For example, and this may be anathema to some business leaders, one reasonable guarantee of an absence of forced labour in a work place is the presence of a trade union. Businesses should consider working more frequently with trades unions to help decrease the vulnerability of workers through increased opportunities for collective bargaining.

The new transparency in supply chain requirement under British law provides an opportunity for businesses to publicly explain the principle slavery risks they encounter. These may include, if the supply chain stretches into South Asia, the fact that the bricks with which factories are built are produced in considerable part by bonded families openly working in kilns that are uninspected and unregulated by any level of government. Or they may note the risks of child labour that the shortage of decent schools in the communities that supply agricultural commodities to their supply chains.

I know from my personal experience as a development and humanitarian worker that these abuses often occur in communities where anti-poverty organisations are already working. Therefore there should be a requirement of every such agency to consider how they could contribute towards the reduction of slavery within those communities.

This may not always be possible. But asking the question and considering carefully the dynamics of power and discrimination could empower those who were previously overlooked.

More broadly, development and humanitarian policy-makers and practitioners must take a more conscious focus on vulnerability to slavery. For example, ensuring that the children, particularly the daughters, of brick kiln workers or manual scavengers in South Asia have access to proper education which will break the transmission of slavery across generations. Furthermore ensuring that the curriculum promotes human rights and toleration for all would help erode the prejudices that permit human beings to enslave and exploit others. Businesses may assist in this by partnering with schools on work experience and entrepreneurial education.

Ending slavery is a joint responsibility of business, civil society and government. A wider dialogue amongst these three on how this may be achieved will be a vital feature of any meaningful progress in the years to come.

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