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It is estimated that 49.6 million people live in the modern slavery today. Out of this number, 1 in 4 are children and 54 % are women and girls. Over 27 million are in forced labour and an astonishing 22 million are in forced marriage.

Walk Free is an international human rights organisation focused on the systemic eradication of modern slavery, in all its forms, in our lifetime. It is the creator of the world’s leading data set on measuring and understanding modern slavery, currently documenting modern slavery and its core drivers in over 170 countries. Its work is underpinned by the insights, experience and expertise of survivors and frontline leaders around the world, including partnerships with survivor networks globally. These learnings inform Walk Free’s global and regional advocacy efforts to address modern slavery in global supply chains and key industries as well as the financial sector and migration pathways.

I caught up with the passionate and dedicated Grace Forrest, the Founder of Walk Free, to learn what led to starting the organization, what root causes stand behind the modern slavery and how companies can help to eradicate it.

“Walk Free was founded over a decade ago after I spent time living and working in Nepal at a rescue home for children who had been subjected to various forms of exploitation. It was there I first witnessed the extent of the extreme and continued commodification of human beings, and soon learnt that modern slavery is one of the most profitable forms of organised crime in the world, continuing to underpin our global economy, “ Forrest recollected. Walk Free was established at the end of that year to address the root causes of modern slavery and create systems level change.

Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index is the world’s most comprehensive data set of modern slavery. It uses this data to mobilise powerful forces for change against these abuses of human rights.

It works with governments, businesses, religious and community leaders to drive systems change and partners directly with frontline organisations to liberate people trapped in slavery around the world.

The recent estimate Walk Free released with the International Labor Organization showed a shocking increase in modern slavery to 50 million people. There has actually been a 10 million person increase in the number of people living in modern slavery from the last estimate in 2016. We discussed what had driven this increase.

Walk Free attributes this staggering increase to compounding crises – be it the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis or continued armed conflicts. When crises like these occur, they put the world’s most vulnerable people under additional pressure, exacerbating existing structural inequalities. Be it disruptions in employment and education, increases in extreme poverty and distress migration, or an upsurge in gender-based violence.

But crises alone aren’t to blame, it is also the stagnant response from global leaders. While there are some promising advances in legislation – for example, Walk Free has just worked with the government in New Zealand to help inform their new federal legislation – broader systemic solutions which hold global supply chains to account are still severely lacking throughout the world.

“The 2018 Global Slavery Index found that that the G20 nations were responsible for importing US$354 billion worth of goods at high risk of being made using modern slavery. Five years on, and we’re yet to see a comprehensive response or actionable plan led by the G20 countries,” Forrest added.

It may be surprising to know that 50 % of this increase comes from countries which have an upper middle income. Grace Forrest further provided more context as to why this is happening.

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“There are two things to understand. Firstly, there is a common misconception that modern slavery only happens in developing countries, when in reality, no country is immune to modern slavery,” Forrest explained. More than half of all forced labour occurs in upper-middle or high-income countries, as well as 25% of forced marriages. The interconnected nature of our global economy means that the production of one product can span across several regions.

Secondly, the G20 nations – who account for more than 80% of the world’s trade – are still beneficiaries of the lasting legacies of historical slavery and the power imbalances embedded in our global economies. “These countries should therefore bear the greatest responsibility to combat modern slavery – not only do they have direct control over much of the global economy, but they also consume the majority of the products made using slavery and extremely exploitative labour,” she added.

We talked about the insights and contribution of the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of climate change to the shocking increase in modern slavery.

The COVID-19 pandemic amplified global inequality. As the United Nation’s Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in 2020, “while we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some are in superyachts while others are clinging to the floating debris”. “Those worst effected were the most vulnerable and structurally disadvantaged, who were suddenly hit with job insecurity, unemployment and global migration disruption. This resulted in widespread and increasing poverty, and an increase in gender-based violence, including forced and child marriages. Too often in times of crisis, the rights of women and girls are the first thing to be taken off the table,” Forrest said.

Similarly, the climate crisis continues to have the harshest effects on people with the least amount of social support and infrastructure to protect themselves. She further explained, “It’s important to highlight that it is the nations who have contributed the least to global emissions who are suffering the most adverse impacts. Equally, it is often the industries creating the worst environmental impacts that are also the industries which thrive off exploitation – from forced and child labour in fast fashion; from cotton picking to manufacturing, to hazardous working conditions in brick production lines in Pakistan, forced labour linked to illegal deforestation or debt-bondage in Thailand’s fishing industry.”

As certain industries that are dependent on raw materials like sugar and cotton are also more likely to have incidences of forced labour, I asked what business leaders that deal with those industries could do to help stamp out this problem.

Sugar production is among the most hazardous industries, with workers, including children, often exposed to very poor health and safety conditions. The agricultural sector is heavily reliant on temporary workers, including irregular and undocumented migrants. These workers often work without a written employment contract and lack the understanding of local laws and their rights. The global estimates showed that migrant workers were three times more likely to experience exploitation than non-migrant workers.

Similarly, cotton has been a product of slavery for generations. “One in five cotton garments in the global apparel industry are tainted by forced labour from the Xinjiang region of China, where Uyghur people are exploited in state-imposed forced labour. The difficulty of conducting due diligence across supply chains that extend into that region is virtually impossible, “ Forrest noted.

Businesses have an opportunity, and an urgent responsibility, to go beyond compliance and create new industry standards. Walk Free has published the Modern Slavery Response & Remedy Framework with the Human Rights Resources and Energy Collaborative, a group of industrial companies who are working to eradicate and remediate modern slavery in their operations and their supply chains. Change in this space is possible, but it is not inevitable without consumer and government pressure. Understanding industry-specific risks will help guide industry-specific action.

Forrest said, “We touch and use products using modern slavery every day – whether its coffee, or phones or the clothes we wear. We are wearing that exploitation.” I asked what advice she had for leaders in business to help take responsibility to help solve this shameful issue. “Put frankly, if you’re not a part of a proactive solution: you are part of the problem. At Walk Free, we firmly believe that unless a business can show you that they’re doing the right thing, you should assume they’re doing the wrong thing, “ she concluded.

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