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Asia

Why modern slavery is widespread in Asia

Two-thirds of world's modern-day slaves are found in Asian countries, reveals a new study. DW talks to one of the report's authors about the reasons behind it and the measures needed to combat the problem.

The 2016 Global Slavery Index, released on Tuesday, May 31, by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation, concludes that two-thirds of the estimated 45.8 million people trapped in modern-day slavery are living in the Asia-Pacific region.

India tops the list with some 18.35 million modern slaves, followed by China (3.39 million), Pakistan (2.13 million), Bangladesh (1.53 million), and Uzbekistan (1.23 million), the report said.

As a percentage of the population, North Korea leads the pack with 4.37 percent of the isolated East Asian nation's 25 million people enslaved, while Uzbekistan (3.97 percent) and Cambodia (1.65 percent) trailed North Korea.

The term modern slavery is often used to describe human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, sex trafficking, forced marriage and other such exploitation.

In a DW interview, Fiona David, executive director of global research at the Walk Free Foundation, calls on the countries in the region to step up their efforts to combat the problem and put in place the mechanisms that would require businesses to focus on the issues of slavery and forced labor throughout their supply chains.

DW: According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, nearly two-thirds of modern slaves are living in Asian countries. What are the reasons behind the high prevalence of this phenomenon in the region?

Fiona David: The Asia-Pacific is the most populous region in the world, and it is also well integrated into the global supply chains. We do estimate that about two-thirds of the nearly 46 million people trapped in slavery are in Asia. And we see all forms of modern slavery in the region, such as forced labor in brick kilns, child beggars in Afghanistan and India, bonded labor in the agricultural as well as garment sectors.

Fiona David Walk Free Foundation

David: 'We see all forms of modern slavery in the region, such as forced labor in brick kilns, child beggars and bonded labor in the agricultural as well as garment sectors'

Given its population size and integration into global value chains, the Asia-Pacific is a region where a lot of low cost labor is made available to produce the goods and services that we all consume.

What kind of living and working conditions do these people find themselves in?

They experience miserable living and working conditions. A recent case in Indonesia provides a very stark example. The Indonesian government rescued more than 2,000 men off a remote island village of Benjina; some of these men had been at sea for years, and they had been held captive on fishing boats as unpaid slave labor.

These people reported to have been beaten and physically abused. They were also not provided with adequate food. And when the Indonesian authorities came to the island, some of the men were literally found in cages.

It's not a simple issue of wages, but rather a situation where people are exploited and stopped from leaving by the use of force or violence.

The report said India has the highest number of people trapped in slavery, at 18.35 million. In 2014, that figure was estimated to be about 14.29 million people. Why did the number increase in India?

In India, for the latest report, we were able to pick random samples and conduct face-to-face surveys in 15 out of the nation's 29 states. The surveys were conducted in eight languages, and they allowed us to understand the situation of a group of people representing 80 percent of the Indian population.

I would, therefore, not suggest that the absolute number of those in slavery in India has increased. But I would rather say that we have a clearer picture of the situation as a result of better and more representative survey data that we have this year.

We have gone from a situation where we had to rely on secondary sources to the point where our estimates are based on face-to-face survey data, including people's experiences with forced labor or forced marriage.

What measures are being taken by the Indian government to combat the problem?

The good news is that the Indian government has been working on this issue in a very committed way for years now. The first step in response to these problems is making laws to ensure that criminals are brought to justice. And India already has several laws on its statute books for decades – like the law on bonded labor has existed since the 1970s.

But the important development now is that we are starting to see the Indian government really focusing on reviewing the steps that have been put in place and paying attention to how it can improve those measures - be it by updating legislation as well as standard operating procedures for rescue, updating the compensation provision to ensure that the victims of human trafficking and bonded labor can be assisted financially.

Do you see the same kind of effort on the part of other Asian governments to curb these practices?

We certainly see some governments taking very positive steps. For example, when the news emerged about the fishermen being exploited, the Indonesian government swiftly stepped in even though the men were from Myanmar and they were working on Thai fishing vessels.

The government rescued them, got them off the island, worked with the companies involved to get them paid, repatriated them and ensured that they were all taken to safety. So it was a positive response which has had a real impact on the lives of those exploited.

At the same time, we have some governments that are not doing anything to combat the problem. In fact, they are themselves part of the problem. For instance, North Korea's government is the main reason for the prevalence of forced labor in the country.

In addition to operating political labor camps within the country, the government forces North Korean citizens working abroad to provide cash back to the regime. The workers know that if they refused to abide by Pyongyang's orders, their families would be at risk.

What kind of international support do Asian countries need to put an end to such abuse and exploitation?

Watch video 04:10

Modern slavery in India's textile industry

I think there is a big role that consumers and businesses can play on this issue. Nobody would want to buy clothes made in a sweatshop, or eat fish that's caught by slaves, or go to a restaurant where people from North Korea are made to work against their will.

Therefore, if we can continue to make more information available and raise awareness about the goods and services that we are buying - where they are coming from and under which conditions they are made - then we can make informed decisions.

Meanwhile, we need governments - particularly the region's top ten economies, including China, Japan and India - to step up their efforts and put in place the sort of mechanisms that would require companies to focus on the issues of slavery and forced labor throughout their supply chains.

Fiona David is Executive Director of Global Research at the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation, which compiles the Global Slavery Index.

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