The number of people trapped in modern slavery has increased by 10 million in the last five years

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Morgan Theakston
/ Categories: Modern Slavery

A new report by the International Labour Organisation, Walk Free and the International Organisation for Migration shows a massive increase in modern slavery globally, from an estimated 40 million people enslaved in 2016 to 50 million as of 2021.


Here is the breakdown:

  Type 2016 estimates 2021 estimates
Forced Labour Forced Labour Exploitation 20.1m 21.2m
  Forced Commercial Sexual Exploitation 4.8m 6.3m (1.7m of which are children)
Forced Marriage Forced Marriage 15m 22m


The report found a 6.6 million increase in the number of people forced into marriage between 2016 and 2021, with the prevalence of forced marriage rising from 2.1 to 2.8 people per thousand. About two-thirds of those in forced marriage are women and girls, and a third are men and boys. Some forced to marry were as young as nine.


One girl forced into marriage at 11 years old said, “I was afraid of him. I didn’t want to live or sleep with him in the same bed… But they told me that, as a wife, I was supposed to live with my husband. It was then that the reality dawned on me that I was married.”


The report also found a 2.7 million increase in the number of people in forced labour over this same five-year period, with the prevalence of forced labour rising from 3.4 to 3.5 people per thousand. This measurement includes those specifically involved in forced commercial sexual exploitation and in other forms of economic activity (manufacturing and construction, for example). It found nearly 64 per cent of all forced labour occurs in upper-middle or high-income countries. Over 3.3 million of those forced into labour are children, with 1.7 million trapped in forced sexual exploitation. For comparison, 1.7 million people is equivalent to filling every seat in Eden Park 34 times.


These numbers are harrowing but not completely surprising as we’ve seen the Covid-19 pandemic sweep over our world, conflicts continue to rage while new ones emerge, and the impacts of climate change intensify. The report attributes this increase in forced labour and forced marriage, in part, to these compounding crises as they have led to unprecedented increases in extreme poverty, lower education rates, a rise in distress migration, and significant increases in reports of violence against women—all are factors that have increased people's vulnerability to slavery.


Photo by //Nikki Denholm


We can’t promise we’ll end slavery, but we can promise we'll continue to do everything we can to reverse the direction of these numbers.


Tearfund takes a comprehensive, best-practice approach to address and reduce modern slavery using the “Five-Ps” approach: prevention, prosecution, protection, policy and partnership. We believe communities know the issues they face better than anyone, so we partner with local organisations, governments and law enforcement. Through our partners on the ground across the Asia-Pacific region, we help to protect people vulnerable to trafficking and worker exploitation by running empowerment and education programmes. We assist authorities to investigate the criminal networks behind trafficking and slavery and work with local law enforcement to prosecute traffickers, preventing more people from becoming enslaved. The moment a survivor is free from slavery is the beginning of a long road of recovery and it is critical to continue journeying with them. That's why we support programmes for rehabilitation and reintegration to ensure survivors have safe places to heal.


Modern slavery, particularly forced labour, is exacerbated by business practices and consumption habits in higher income countries. To address this, we’ve spent the past six years advocating for change in the New Zealand apparel industry through our Ethical Fashion Report research, holding companies to account for upholding the rights of workers in their international supply chains and helping consumers make informed purchasing choices. We’ve also realised the immense importance of top-down policy change, which is why we’re lobbying the New Zealand government to pass modern slavery legislation in Aotearoa—a law we’ve just become one step closer to seeing become a reality.


Photo by //Nikki Denholm


Would you consider joining us in acting for justice to reduce modern slavery and exploitation around the world?


Your on-going support allows us the privilege to fund our work through our partners.


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A monthly gift of $15 will help:

  •  - Prevent women and children from being trafficked
  •  - Rescue victims of trafficking
  •  - Prosecute traffickers
  •  - Provide aftercare for trafficked people
  •  - Support our Advocacy work to reduce modern slavery and enact policy changes

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Morgan Theakston

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