The number of people in modern slavery, which could include both forced labour and forced marriage, rose sharply to nearly 50 million by 2021 globally from about 40 million in 2016 with the Covid-19 pandemic, armed conflicts, and climate change, disrupting employment and education and fuelling poverty.

The report on 2021 Global Estimates for Modern Slavery by the ILO indicates that 49.6 million people are in modern slavery on any given day, either forced to work against their will or in a marriage that they were forced into.

While forced labour accounts for 27.6 million of those in modern slavery, forced marriage accounts for 22 million.

The report highlighted that forced labour has grown in recent years.

Forced labour

“A simple comparison with the 2016 global estimates indicates an increase of 2.7 million in the number people in forced labour between 2016 and 2021, which translates to a rise in the prevalence of forced labour from 3.4 to 3.5 per thousand people in the world,” it said.

The increase in the number of people in forced labour was driven entirely by forced labour in the private economy, both in forced commercial sexual exploitation and in forced labour in other sectors.

The report noted that the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic were accompanied by widespread reports of forced labour linked to the crisis.

“Disruptions to income because of the pandemic led to greater indebtedness among workers and with it reports of a rise in debt bondage among some workers lacking access to formal credit channels,” it said, adding that the crisis also resulted in a deterioration of working conditions for many workers, in some cases leading to forced labour.

Amongst regions, Asia and the Pacific is host to more than half of the global total (15.1 million), followed by Europe and Central Asia (4.1 million), Africa (3.8 million), the Americas (3.6 million), and the Arab States (0.9 million).

However, in terms of proportion of population, forced labour is highest in the Arab States (5.3 per thousand people), followed by Europe and Central Asia (4.4 per thousand), the Americas and Asia and the Pacific (both at 3.5 per thousand), and Africa (2.9 per thousand).

Forced marriage

The number of people living in a forced marriage increased by 6.6 million between 2016 and 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the underlying drivers of all forms of modern slavery, including forced marriage, which often is linked to economic hardship, the report said.

For instance, Covid-19 limitations prohibiting large gatherings in India and Sudan unintentionally provided another incentive for child and forced marriages: the reduced cost of a smaller wedding.

Nearly two-thirds of all forced marriages, an estimated 14.2 million people, are in Asia and the Pacific.

This is followed by 14.5 per cent in Africa (3.2 million) and 10.4 per cent in Europe and Central Asia (2.3 million).

When the report accounts for the population in each region, prevalence of forced marriage is highest in the Arab States (4.8 per thousand population), followed by Asia and the Pacific (3.3 per thousand population).