Today is Anti-Slavery Day in the UK. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge a widespread issue that is all too often neglected across the world.
The numbers are truly staggering - an estimated 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery globally in 2016, according to the figures from the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery Report, released last month. To put it in stark context, that’s more than the entire population of Canada.
When we hear the word “slavery”, many of us think of the American Civil War, or perhaps the Roman Empire. It is surprising quite how unaware most people are of the multitude of forms slavery can take. In fact, we live in an era where threats of violence, coercion and abuse of power enslave people across the world through human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage or commercial sexual exploitation.
For those of us living in the developed world, it would be mistaken to conclude that slavery is a phenomenon confined to developing countries or totalitarian regimes. In fact, the 2016 Global Slavery Index ranks the UK in 52nd place out of a 167 countries analysed – far from commendable.
I was saddened to see it reported earlier this month that modern slavery in the UK has seen a 300 per cent increase over the past six years. While the rise in part reflects the improved identification of victims, it is deeply distressing to see that almost half of those brought to the UK were forced into sexual exploitation and 39 per cent were trafficked for labour exploitation. These are practices that should have disappeared centuries ago.
Modern slavery also disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of society. It is estimated 71 per cent of modern slavery affects women and girls, with forced sexual exploitation and forced marriage representing the majority of cases. Further to that, an estimated 37 per cent of victims living in a forced marriage were children at the time of the marriage.
But these are not just facts and figures. They constitute a problem that can and must be addressed. It is time for us all to do more to tackle modern slavery by bringing together governments, businesses and civil society organisations to protect vulnerable people.
In 2015, I welcomed the passing of the Modern Slavery Bill by the British Parliament. The Bill represents an important step for the UK, much like other countries, in encouraging companies to take a closer look at their supply chains and where slavery might be taking place.
At Virgin Management, the home of Virgin, we too are committed to meeting the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act and to work to ensure modern slavery has no place in the UK and beyond.
We all need to come together to tackle this global issue. From managing supply chains to extending labour rights and helping countries work together, there’s plenty of work to be done. It’s time we ended modern slavery once and for all.