It’s a considerable achievement that the Sustainable Development Goals now contain an explicit reference to slavery, forced and child labour.
The absence of this issue from the Millennium Development Goals was a travesty, and the consequences of that are highlighted by the number 5.5 million. 5.5 million is the ILO’s most recent estimate, made in 2012, of the number of children in slavery. It is the same as the ILO’s estimate of the number of children in slavery in 2005
In other words, in spite of all the real progress on poverty reduction and development, including a huge fall in the overall numbers of child labourers, during this period international development has completely passed by the millions of children and, for that matter, the tens of millions more adults in slavery across the world.
So the inclusion of slavery eradication in the Sustainable Development Goals is therefore highly significant. It is a recognition by the international community that it has until now comprehensively ignored some of the people in greatest poverty across the globe. But for this recognition to have practical meaning, it must be translated from a sentence in a United Nations pronouncement to a strategy that puts power into the hands of the excluded.
Because one thing that the struggle against slavery puts into the sharpest of focus is that poverty is not merely about a lack of things, but more fundamentally about a lack of power. This remains true in spite of some of the more recent philanthropic discourses on poverty which treat it not even as an economic issue but a technocratic one.
Slavery is one of the most political of development and poverty issues. Those who are enslaved are drawn from communities which are systematically excluded from power to enable their control by those who are more privileged. They include Dalits and Adivasi in South Asia, migrants in Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, South East Asia and West Africa, and children everywhere, .
Prejudice and discrimination against certain groups on arbitrary bases such as caste, ethnicity, gender and religion is still frequently used as a basis upon which the more powerful exclude the more vulnerable from the processes of development. By doing so those same mechanisms of social exclusion also render those discriminated against more vulnerable to slavery.
Development and humanitarian practitioners have barely even been aware of these dynamics and so have failed to address them. If those who call ourselves anti-slavery activists also ignore the fundamentally political nature of these challenges then we too will fail in the imperatives placed upon us by our mandates.
So this is where it gets difficult.
The majority of the underlying causes of slavery are profoundly political and fraught with contention by vested interests which are quite happy with the way the world currently is. Many new entrants to the struggle against slavery are content to see this struggle as merely a matter of locking up evil people by decent police. They are unconcerned with the altogether more contentious questions that underpin the reality of contemporary slavery, such as state-acquiescence in caste-based discrimination, the toleration of child marriage, undermining of rule of national and international law, the failure to establish safe migration routes for vulnerable workers seeking decent work, or the decriminalised international trade in slavery produced goods and services.
For example if the international community is serious in its efforts against slavery how can we continue to acquiesce in the ready access to international markets and warm inclusion to the international polity of Uzbekistan and Qatar, to name but two states, which, with differing degrees of cynicism, have effectively legalised slavery in within their borders.
Or, in spite of its recent casting of itself as a global leader against slavery it is unlikely that the UK has for a moment considered the potential impact that its naked disdain for the European Court of Human Rights will have on the rule of international law in general and as it relates to slavery in particular: that court has been vital since 2000 in forcing governments across Europe, including the UK, to properly respect the rights of victims of slavery. Any credible international struggle against slavery must therefore confront the British government on this, one of their most cherished political prejudices.
And, another political issue: should India be made a permanent member of the UN Security Council while its toleration of caste-based violence is so high, and its efforts to end slavery are so paltry?
So to advance Target 8.7 requires a new concentration of effort that draws in not only traditional ILO partners but also the entire development and humanitarian sector on this issue, recognising that tackling slavery is a fundamental political and development issue and one that is not solely the preserve of law enforcement professionals. Frequently, such as in the brick kilns and quarries of South Asia, it is openly practiced. Therefore there should be a requirement of every credible development and humanitarian agency to consider if they could contribute towards the reduction of slavery and child labour within every community with which they work. This may not always be possible. But asking the question, and considering carefully the dynamics of power and discrimination could lead to empowerment of some who would previously have been overlooked.
Second, there should be much more conscious focus by in development and humanitarian programmes on diminishing the vulnerability to slavery of those communities. For example, ensuring that the children, particularly the daughters, of brick kiln workers and manual scavengers in South Asia have access to proper education, could help break the transmission of slavery across generations. And ensuring that the curriculum promotes human rights, in particular those of girls, and toleration for all would help erode the prejudices that permit human beings to enslave and exploit others.
Aid programmes must work to advance the rule of law by building the capacity of the courts and law enforcement agencies, so that anti-slavery laws can be upheld rather than regarded as mere suggestions to the elites who continue to be able to exploit people with impunity.
Beyond the development and humanitarian sectors the issue of slavery must become a centrepiece of diplomacy, trade and migration policy. In particular there is a need for a clear recognition of the brutal reality that tied visas are de facto licences for trafficking across the world.
This Alliance is vital if we are to obtain progress on Target 8.7. But to do so we must tackle this issue directly, holding each other to account and not merely tinker at the edges with approaches which never confront many of the most powerful who maintain the systems of slavery.