Slavery and related practices such as forced labour, trafficking in persons and servitude are defined in different international conventions. Yet national estimates on forced labour hardly exist and the lack of reliable data makes it very difficult to monitor trends, to develop effective policies and to identify victims.
Through my work at the ILO I have asked myself why it is that we have data on so many global ills but not on slavery – one of the worst human rights abuses we are faced with today.
At the root is a lack of awareness – or a refusal to acknowledge – that slavery or forced labour still exists under many different disguises. The way people are coerced into work today is very different from the slave trade of 200 years ago. It is often invisible and subtle. Workers themselves often don't realise that what they have to endure is unacceptable and violates their basic rights. And even if they do, they have no voice. Where there is no voice, there is no or limited political support.
Do we in the anti-slavery movement have the potential to challenge this status quo?
The movement is currently made up of a plethora of old and new organisations, both at international and national levels.
Given the historic evolution of international law, various UN agencies have a specific mandate to address slavery, forced labour or human trafficking. But collaboration between these agencies is hampered by diverging views on how best to combat slavery.
Much of the attention has focused on trafficking in persons in recent years, without addressing the broader dimensions of labour exploitation and coercion as well as their root causes. This has often led to a piecemeal approach where one set of measures is privileged over another. There is broad consensus among experts that prevention measures should receive greater attention, but there is less agreement on what these measures should entail.
There are also competing agendas among civil society organisations. The collective voice of workers is potentially very powerful and trade unions have become more prominently involved in the struggle against forced labour, including the International Trade Union Confederation. But many of these initiatives and organisations operate on a shoestring budget.
Yet despite these challenges, there are reasons to be positive. On a global scale dramatic changes have occurred within the last decade. Brazil's government was one of the first to publically denounce slave labour in 1995. In 2011, EU member states adopted new legislation that guarantees greater rights for trafficked victims; an issue that had been fiercely contested in previous years.
Last year, the government of Burma, which had been sanctioned and isolated internationally for its use of forced labour, signed an agreement with the ILO to stop all forms of forced labour by 2015.
In the Middle East, some governments are now publicly discussing alternatives to the "kafeel system", which ties migrant workers to their "sponsors" and accords disproportionate power to employers.
Business and employers organisations are also becoming more aware of the issue. The California Transparency in Supply Chain Act, which took effect in January 2012, requires companies to disclose information with regards to human trafficking. It has sparked a lot of debate within the business community. In 2010, the International Organisation of Employers issued a paper that highlighted the risks of forced labour and called on employers to take action.
But it is not enough to call for an end of these intolerable forms of exploitation; we also need to think of how to do it.
We still know very little about the long-term impact of anti-forced labour initiatives. There is a need to critically assess what has been achieved so far through measures that have largely focused on criminalisation and prosecution.
So far the results of this strategy have been disappointing. Every year, we record just a few thousand prosecuted cases. Millions of victims remain unidentified and continue toiling away in private homes, on plantations, fishing boats, or in illegal sweatshops. Thousands of women and girls are forced into prostitution every day, and many victims who have been rescued end up in a similar situation shortly after. We therefore need a paradigmatic shift in thinking: criminal law enforcement needs to be much better integrated with long-term prevention and empowerment strategies.
There are some inspiring examples of best practice to be found in the sector. On a recent trip to Cuiabá, Brazil, I visited a major construction site where a new stadium was being built for the 2014 World Cup. There I learnt about a new initiative to prevent modern forms of slavery. It combined interventions and quality vocational training to workers who have fallen prey to or are vulnerable to exploitative forms of labour with heavy fines for unscrupulous employers, a partnership with local businesses that forms the financial and economic backbone of the project and strong leadership from the ministry of labour and, against all the odds, a non-corruptible labour prosecutor.
When I returned from Brazil, I couldn't stop thinking that what had happened in Cuiabá should be possible elsewhere too. It's important to share the lessons learned from these initiatives and to remind governments of their obligation to invest in the long-term prevention of forced labour.
With the right strategy in place, preventive measures are more cost-effective than curing symptoms. And the hope they bring to workers like the one I met in Cuiabá values more than money. We must all now seize the opportunity to make this potential into a reality for millions around the world.
Beate Andrews is head of the Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour at the International Labour Organisation