UN Fund and NGOs: fighting contemporary forms of slavery for 30 years

Visual for the 30th anniversary of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. ©IOM/Muse Mohamed-OHCHR

“In 2012, I was rescued,” said Marinaldo Soares, a survivor of forced labour from Brazil. “Friends of mine who were also working in slavery-like conditions reported the abuse and, thanks to them, we were rescued and received assistance. My rights were recognised and through my experience I learned how to protect the rights of others.”

“We are still fighting against slavery. We don’t want people to experience what we did.”

Soares was rescued by the Mobile Inspection Working Group thanks to a complaint received by the Carmen Bascarán Centre for the Defence of Life and Human Rights, based in the State of Maranhão, Brazil. The Centre assists efforts towards eradicating forced labour and assisting victims of human trafficking and slavery, with the support of the UN Slavery Fund. The Centre’s approach focuses on labour rights and community outreach, aiming to prevent that vulnerable individuals fall victims to exploitative practices.

Four years after he was rescued, Soares went on to win the 2016 National Human Rights Award in Brazil, in the ‘Combating Slavery’ category.

“To prevent people from being pushed into slavery, we need to inform them about their rights and ensure these rights are protected,” Soares said. “We need to invest in vulnerable communities for their development - people still fall prey to slavery because they are hungry and have nothing in their community. We also need to improve public policies for survivors.”

Soares recounted his story during an online webinar organized by UN Human Rights and the University of Nottingham, and co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Norway, to mark the 30th anniversary of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

30 years of bringing survivors to the centre of recovery and prevention

The Fund was established by the General Assembly in 1991 (resolution 46/122) to bring relief to those whose human rights have been severely violated as a result of enrolment of children in armed conflict, debt bondage, forced and early marriage, forced labour, traditional slavery, trafficking of persons, the sale of children, the sale of wives, serfdom, sexual slavery, widow inheritance, and the worst forms of child labour.

Since its establishment, the Fund, which receives contributions from States, private or public entities and individuals, has disbursed more than USD 9.5 million, awarding 800 grants in more than 100 countries, providing rehabilitation and assistance to thousands of people worldwide.

“The Fund promotes bringing survivors at the centre of action to prevent and end slavery and to restore their dignity… More than 80 per cent of all contributions are directly channelled to victims,” said the Fund’s Chairperson, Danwood Chirwa.

“The Fund would need a minimum of USD 1.5 million annually to fulfil its mandate but, for the past three years, we have only been able to secure half of this amount,” he added, while also appealing to States to continue supporting the Fund and more States to donate in order to reach more victims.

Grassroots organizations advocating for change

During the webinar, several grantees of the Fund were invited to describe the role they play in supporting survivors, and to share good practices that better protect victims and prevent slavery.

Different and Equal is an Albanian-based NGO that provides shelter and comprehensive reintegration assistance to victims of trafficking. Executive Director Mariana Meshi, said although her country has legal and policy instruments for the protection of victims of trafficking, her organization advocates for a specific and more comprehensive anti-slavery law.

“Fragmentation of legislation with provisions scattered in different acts makes it very difficult to implement an effective policy for the protection of victims of trafficking,” she said.

In Singapore, the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) runs a shelter for migrant domestic workers and provides them with humanitarian and legal assistance. Jaya Anil Kumar, Research and Advocacy Manager at HOME, explained that domestic migrant workers are excluded from the Employment Act, the primary labour legislation in Singapore, and their work permits are tied to their employers.

“Work permit conditions stipulate that employers “shall control and supervise” their foreign employees. The Singapore Government further imposes financial burdens on employers to ensure they undertake this obligation,” Kumar said.

As a result, migrant domestic workers have to obtain consent from their current employers if they wish to change jobs, and they are often indebted to agencies that charge hefty fees of up to USD 4,000 for work placements.

Kumar recommended that Singapore extend primary labour laws to migrant domestic workers; establish the right to switch employers freely; and to adopt the zero recruitment fees model of the International Labour Organization’s Fair Recruitment Initiative and to improve transparency in fees from recruitment agencies.

People on the move facing increasing challenges

Often, Governments provide only temporary solutions for the displaced that do not sufficiently take their needs into account, thus increasing the risk of them being drawn into slavery, said Tomoya Obokata, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, who presented a report on the nexus between displacement and contemporary slavery to the Human Rights Council in September. Access to the formal job market, is one critical issue surrounding this, he added.

“States should grant access to decent work in law and practice to displaced persons,” Obokata said. “In this way, they could also contribute to the local economy and become self-reliant and less vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery.”

Katarina Schwarz, Associate Director of Nottingham University’s Rights Lab, pointed out that significant gaps remain in legal frameworks and international laws that result in inconsistent or incomplete implementation at the country level.

Schwarz recommended a number of actions that could be taken at the international, national and local levels to address challenges in the legal infrastructure, including developing international frameworks and standards that deal with areas not codified by law; harmonising domestic law across countries so that norms and protections operate across contexts for people on the move; and addressing the structural conditions that foster contemporary slavery.

“Recalling that an element at the core of traditional chattel slavery is the denial of legal personhood, it’s fundamentally important that we are highly critical of any regime that has as its purpose or its impact the degradation of legal protection and recognition for any person, let alone entire groups,” she said.

Madeline Garlick, Head of the Protection, Policy and Legal Advice Section at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, pointed out that the refugee agency’s Executive Committee recognized its role in preventing people under its mandate from falling victim to trafficking and protecting victims, adding that it is also the responsibility of all human rights mechanisms and States to “promote accession and implementation of relevant international instruments” and “work more effectively in partnership to ensure an end to the violations of rights that manifest wherever slavery and trafficking is seen worldwide.”

Recalling that Norway had recently launched a strategy to strengthen development efforts to combat contemporary forms of slavery, the Ambassador of Norway and event moderator, Tine Mørch Smith, encouraged Member States to support to the Fund, including through contributions. “It is very clear what impact the Fund has for people who are struggling in very difficult situations,” she concluded.

20 October 2021

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