So, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's observation, "Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains", has not lost its relevance at all 300 years later but, it appears, has even, to the bewilderment of many, gained fresh grounds. The International Labour Organisation's (ILO's) latest disclosure is particularly alarming because instead of the modern forms of slavery falling, they have got 10 million more people worldwide into their spreading tentacles to take the total to 50 million by the end of 2021. The increase by one-fifth in the number of people caught up in forced labour, forced marriage and other such inhuman conditions between 2016-2020 is in effect a journey backward when the UN has set 2030 for abolition of such slavery from the face of the earth. Now how this retrogressive human rights developments will affect the UN's sustainable development goals (SDGs) is indeed a cause for serious concern.
What is particularly intriguing is that modern slavery is abysmally more prevalent, contrary to popular assumption, in upper-middle-income or high-income countries than in low-income ones. Cutting across ethnic, cultural and religious lines, as high as 52 per cent of forced labour and a quarter of all forced marriages take place in these countries economically better placed than many others. The indication is highly disconcerting. Here is a malady of free market economy that prospers on exploitation of the disadvantaged classes. Under the system, wealth gets created but not rationally distributed to pull the underprivileged out of their wretched conditions. Instead, the system of exploitation is perpetuated in order to maintain the status quo in favour of the exploitative classes. Even the pandemic that initially appeared as a great leveller with its indiscriminate sweep ultimately failed to offer a lesson of humanitarian and welfare society based on fair share of wealth.
True, the pandemic and wars have exacerbated conditions of the low-income people and refugees but these have not stopped the privileged classes and the rich from amassing more wealth than before. This means that these classes from their advantageous positions have taken even more undue advantages in order to maximise their profits. The soaring inflation worldwide is the result of such a work of collective mindless commerce now perfected by exploitative theories of the worst kinds. Baser politics has also joined hands in the rapacious trade practices to rip off the souls of humanity and charity. No wonder, it is the private businesses all across the world that have been thriving at the cost of fair wages and salaries for workers.
The joint study done by the UN agencies for labour and migration along with the Walk Free Foundation could not come at a better time to expose the charlatanism of world leaders who in league with the business sharks have triggered the galloping market volatility. It is more like releasing the monster out of the bottle. It was a bad ploy to drive Russia and Ukraine into an armed conflict. The Slavic neighbours are fighting a war but most part of the world is singeing by the heat generated there. An emergency like this shifts the priority for action to protect labour and human rights which are inseparable from each other. The UN has to be highly diplomatic and tactical in carrying out its labour rights programmes in such an uncertain time.