On Thursday 4 March 2021, Lord Chidgey (Liberal Democrat) is due to ask the Government “what steps they are taking to promote anti-slavery projects throughout the Commonwealth”.

What is modern slavery?

The United Nations states that the term is used to cover practices such as:

  • Forced labour
  • Debt bondage
  • Forced marriage
  • Human trafficking

The International Labour Organisation has estimated that 40.3 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery. In addition, more than 150 million children are subject to child labour.

Modern slavery in Commonwealth countries

According to a report published in July 2020 by anti-slavery organisation Walk Free and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), one in every 150 people in the Commonwealth is living in modern slavery. This is approximately 15.7 million men, women and children. It is estimated that 40% of the total number of victims of modern slavery live in the Commonwealth.

The report outlined the laws that have been enacted to tackle modern slavery across the Commonwealth. Of the 54 countries in the association:

  • 29 (39%) have national guidelines on how to identify victims.
  • 45 (83%) have criminalised human trafficking.
  • 35 (65%) have criminalised forced labour.
  • 18 (33%) have criminalised forced marriage.
  • 31 (57%) have criminalised commercial child sexual exploitation.
  • 54 (100%) have gaps in implementation.

During the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in the UK, each country committed to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goal of eradicating forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking by 2030.

What has the UK Government done to combat slavery in the Commonwealth?

The UK Government has said it is committed to “the eradication of all forms of modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking by 2030” as adopted at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in 2015. This commitment reaffirms the Call to Action to End Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, launched at the 72nd meeting of the UN General Assembly in 2017 and supported by the UK.

On 18 October 2019, the Government appointed its first Migration and Modern Slavery Envoy. Jennifer Townson had previously held various roles as a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) diplomat. On her appointment, the Government said she would “be an advocate for tackling modern slavery globally” and help the UK co-ordinate its action with other nations.

Modern slavery in global supply chains

In September 2018, the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US jointly launched the principles to guide government action to combat human trafficking in global supply chains. The Government has said that the principles “provide a framework for the UK’s international approach to tackling modern slavery”. They are:

  • Principle 1: Governments should take steps to prevent and address human trafficking in government procurement practices.
  • Principle 2: Governments should encourage the private sector to prevent and address human trafficking in its supply chains.
  • Principle 3: Governments should advance responsible recruitment policies and practices.
  • Principle 4: Governments should strive for harmonisation.

In March 2020, the UK Government published its first Modern Slavery Statement. This outlined the steps that the Government had taken to tackle modern slavery in UK operations and supply chains. For example, it said that training had been delivered to over 250 commercial staff on how to carry out a modern slavery risk assessment. The Government has said that each government department will produce its own statement by September 2021.

Overseas Development Assistance

In 2018, the Government committed £200 million in Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to tackle modern slavery internationally. The fund has been administered by the Home Office (under the Modern Slavery Fund), the Commonwealth Fund and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

The most recent UK Annual Report on Modern Slavery, co-authored by the UK and devolved governments and published in October 2020, outlined the programmes that have received funding from the UK’s ODA since 2018. Examples included:

  • A Home Office-supported Modern Slavery Innovation Fund for projects trialling innovative approaches to tackling modern slavery.
  • Commonwealth Fund support for Commonwealth parliamentarians to strengthen legislation and national action plans.
  • FCDO support for the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, active in India and Bangladesh, and the Stamping Out Slavery in Nigeria programme.

In October 2020, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact published a report into the effectiveness of the UK Government’s aid programme. It stated that the UK had met its commitment to spend £200 million in UK aid to promote global action on slavery and had successfully raised awareness of modern slavery globally. It went on to say that whilst some programmes funded by ODA were “worthwhile pilots” which had “useful outputs”, most of them “have not yet demonstrated impact or value for money”. It concluded that the current portfolio “is not well positioned to achieve impact or to expand knowledge” on tackling modern slavery.

In its response, the Government accepted or partially accepted all of the report’s recommendations. The Government said that it would establish a cross-Government review to ensure continued progress on the issue.

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK (CPA UK) was established in 1911 to support and strengthen parliamentary democracy across the Commonwealth. From 2016 to 2020, CPA UK launched its modern slavery project funded by the UK Government. According the CPA UK’s website, the project provided practical advice and support to Commonwealth legislatures. Its aim was to encourage and facilitate a greater understanding of the benefits of introducing modern-slavery related legislation. As part of the project, CPA UK created materials in several languages to assist parliamentarians in raising awareness of the issue.

What do commentators say?

In their July 2020 report on modern slavery in the Commonwealth, Walk Free and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative claimed that overall there had been inadequate action by Commonwealth governments to tackle modern slavery. They stated that some progress has been made, for example the passing of comprehensive trafficking legislation in Pakistan and the adoption of the Modern Slavery Act in Australia, but that overall progress is “far too slow”.

Additionally, the organisations said that the Covid-19 pandemic “represents a real risk to any gains” made already. The report called on Commonwealth governments to renew their efforts in this area. It made a number of recommendations for governments in areas such as:

  • Supporting survivors.
  • Strengthening criminal justice.
  • Improving coordination and accountability.
  • Addressing risk factors.
  • Eradicating exploitation from supply chains.

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Cover image by Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting on Flickr.