Protesters take part in a march calling on Libya to end slavery and inhumane treatment of migrants in Pretoria, South Africa, Dec. 12, 2017.
Protesters take part in a march calling on Libya to end slavery and inhumane treatment of migrants in Pretoria, South Africa, Dec. 12, 2017.

NEW HAVEN, CONN. - The world will not end modern-day slavery by focusing on legal action alone and should back a workers’ rights “revolution” to protect people from exploitation and forced labor, lawyers, academics and campaigners told a conference.

Governments regard modern slavery and trafficking mainly as a criminal matter rather than as a human rights and labor issue, yet have secured very few prosecutions for forced labor, several experts told an annual conference at U.S.-based Yale University.

Countries must instead concentrate on ensuring workers have labor rights and the power to organize and collectively demand better pay and conditions, said Martina Vandenberg, president of the Washington-based Human Trafficking Legal Center (HTLC).

A survivor of slavery who wished to remain anonymo
A survivor of slavery who wished to remain anonymous poses for a picture in New Delhi, March 7, 2018.

?Major global issue

Modern slavery is increasingly seen as a major global issue, with an estimated 40 million people enslaved, but there is growing debate on the best ways to achieve a U.N. target of ending the $150 billion a year crime by 2030.

“Forced labor cases are expensive, lengthy and demand a lot of political will,” Vandenberg told the conference on slavery. “We need to move to something revolutionary ... not more law but more organizing, workers’ rights and power to the people.”

Britain in 2015 passed the landmark Modern Slavery Act, which introduced life sentences for traffickers, and nations from Australia and India are mulling tough anti-slavery laws.

20 million enslaved, 1,000 prosecutions

About 20 million people globally were estimated in 2016 to be forced to work, excluding victims of the sex trade, yet there were only 1,038 prosecutions worldwide for labor trafficking that year, according to U.S. State Department data.

This would represent one prosecution for every 19,270 victims of forced labor, based on calculations by the Thomson Reuters Foundation using the data and a United Nations estimate.

“We’re not looking to prosecute slavery; we’re looking to end it,” said Laura Germino, anti-slavery director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida farm workers alliance.

A man holds a placard with the message "Stop Slave
A man holds a placard with the message "Stop Slavery" as he attends a protest against slavery in Libya outside the Lybian Embassy in Paris, Nov. 24, 2017.

?Growing pressure on businesses

Businesses face growing regulatory and consumer pressure to ensure employees in their supply chains are treated fairly, yet workers seeking to organize often encounter resistance from management who fear the power of unions, according to activists.

“The opposite of trafficking isn’t no trafficking, it is the ability of migrants and workers to organize to demand their rights,” said Jennifer Rosenbaum, U.S. director of Global Labor Justice, a trans-national network of worker and migrant groups.

“It is labor organizing and labor organization building that creates conditions where states and courts can be opened up to a rights based approach, and companies can be held accountable.”

Yet countless workers in the growing so-called gig economy, who lack fixed contracts and operate on a self-employed basis entitling them to only basic protections, risk being left behind, said Eileen Boris, a professor at California University.

“Independent contractors have less freedom than traditional workers and are facing more exploitation because of the nature of the job market,” she said.