OPINION: To tackle modern slavery, help the world's poorest get out of debt

Monday, 8 March 2021 09:16 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Migrant fishermen from Myanmar wash themselves after returning from the ocean to Ban Nam Khem, Thailand, December 14, 2014. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Coronavirus pandemic is likely to swell ranks of 8 million people worldwide who are trapped in debt bondage

Once upon a time, when it was still possible to travel, I was in Myanmar one Sunday morning chatting to young female workers from Yangon’s burgeoning garment sector.

Mostly from rural areas, they had come to Yangon to earn money for their families, who after decades of corrupt military dictatorship, were impoverished and mired in debt. These young women knew that they had a limited time to earn: few of them would be employed past 26 because they would simply not be able to work at the rate expected of production line workers when they reached that age. Not that the work they were currently doing was much to write home about: the factories in which they laboured were sweltering affairs, with poor sanitation and the pay, even in the top end ones supplying western brands, was underwhelming.

The slump in demand resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of garment factories across South and South East Asia. So the lives of all those young women, already difficult, has gotten considerably worse. Survival of those who had previously depended on their earnings is now going to be increasingly dependent on their local money lenders with their usurious interest rates. As surely as night follows day, the resulting indebtedness is going to be abused as a basis to exploit poor workers with few alternative employment options.

When personal debt is used to forcibly obtain labour it is known as debt bondage. Typically it works like this: a person, because of need and limited alternatives, takes a loan that is charged at very high interest and required to be paid off with the borrower’s very undervalued labour. 

Fishermen I have spoken to, again in Myanmar, described to me the process by which they became debt bonded. Their job means that for 9 months of the year they work 16 hour a day, 7 days a week. The little they earn from that is never enough for their families to survive but there are few employment alternatives. So they must borrow from the loan sharks. Very quickly their pay merely services the debt and they are forced back every year to labour in the dreadfully dangerous fisheries of the Gulf of Motama.

The International Labour Organization estimates that debt bondage affects about 8 million people, or half of all victims of forced labour imposed by private actors. The economic impacts of COVID-19 means that this number is likely to rise.

To this day political leaders, and a few business folk, covet the title “the new Wilberforce” in recognition of some towering contribution they wish to make to the contemporary struggle against slavery. But in truth, 21st Century leaders have done little on the issue. There has been negligible progress in reducing numbers over the past two decades. In part this is because many who express their detestation of slavery fail to recognise that it persists not because of the cunning of organised crime, but because in so many places it remains, de facto, legal.

The toleration of so much indebtedness is an example of how authorities have turned a blind eye to a mechanism that is responsible for so much exploitation and contemporary slavery. In another example of how the world remains stubbornly unequal, formal approaches to reducing or eliminating debt, such as bankruptcy, are not generally available to the very poor. If they were the more fortunate of us may be deprived of some nice seafood and cheap tee-shirts.

The idea of cancellation of unjust national debts was brought to world attention by the Jubilee Debt Campaign at the beginning of the 21st Century. Shifting the focus of this idea from country to household level, legal cancellation by national government of usurious debt held by private money lenders would begin a process by which poor people could begin to break out of the systems of debt bondage that currently enslave them.

But that alone would not be enough. So debt cancellation measures must be supplemented with increased cash transfers to those vulnerable to debt bondage, through, for example, school attendance allowances. More robust action by governments and businesses alike on provision of a living wage and increasing access to decent work is also essential. There must also be a major expansion of access to affordable credit for households, both microcredit and more substantial loans that can finance the start-ups of new businesses.

All these sorts of measures should already be mainstream in international development policy and practice to empower slavery-vulnerable communities. But they are not. The big aid donors and agencies, like the rest of the world’s political and business leaders, merely tinker at the edges of slavery. Few have yet taken up the challenge of slavery eradication posed in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

What is needed then, to make some meaningful progress against slavery over the next decade is the equivalent of a new Marshall plan. This should be used to fund national governments and international agencies implementation of the anti-slavery action plans that are required by the 2014 Forced Labour Protocol, which is currently approaching its 50th national ratification.

Whoever manages to put such a project in place will deserve not just a Nobel peace prize but an epithet worthy of Wilberforce as well.

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