How Prevalent is Modern Slavery?

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How Prevalent is Modern Slavery?

Modern slavery is prevalent among the millions of migrant domestic workers in East Asia. The percentages measured by this research appear extreme: among current workers it is 17% in Hong Kong and 88% in Singapore. In addition, over half of returned workers in Indonesia and the Philippines count as victims of forced labour.

Common abuses & rights violations of migrant domestic workers


  • Among Indonesian workers in Singapore, 37% were recruited by middlemen who gave an advance fee to the worker or her family that was later added to their recruitment debt.
  • Migrant workers often sign labor contracts before taking training or having sufficient information about migration. 20% of returned workers in Indonesia and the Philippines did not understand the contract they signed.
  • Recruitment costs and fees are capped by the governments in Indonesia and the Philippines, but often migrants face unexpected or exorbitant charges from recruiters in the sending and/or destination country. On average, Indonesians faced four months of salary deductions abroad and Indonesians eight months.
  • Employment agencies abroad are also guilty of economic exploitation of migrant workers; they collect the salary deductions for the original placement. In Hong Kong, they continued to overcharge for contract renewal in 30% of the cases. 39% of the respondents said that they felt that they had no choice but to keep on working to pay off their debt.


Economic exploitation:

  • In Singapore, there is no minimum wage for domestic workers. In the survey, the average monthly salary was USD 380 per month among current workers. In Hong Kong, most respondents make the minimum wage set by the government, but this amount is lower than Domestic workers make less than no minimum wage, illegal deductions, long working hours, work outside of contract, being on call.


Emotional and physical abuse:

  • Lack of freedom of movement, no privacy, threats and insults, dangerous work.


Impossibility to leave:

  • No access to documents, locked in the house, dependency of family on remittances.

Interpreting the results

The results of the calculations may appear quite extreme. However, this does not mean that all forms of labour exploitation are significantly more prevalent in Singapore, or that labour exploitation is worse in Singapore than in Hong Kong. What it means in this case is that specific violations of migrant worker’s rights were measured more frequently in Singapore. For example, some of the most important violations that contributed to Singapore’s high prevalence rates are: excessive working hours (58% versus 5% in Hong Kong) and confiscation of travel documents (75% versus 26% in Hong Kong).

Measuring prevalence

It has been noted by other researchers that there is a methodological bias towards qualitative research versus quantitative studies. In-depth interviews and case studies have certainly helped to raise the profile of the issues and identified various factors for further research, but ours is primarily a quantitative study to generate sector-wide prevalence rates using broad, primary data.


Quantitative research has the advantage that findings can be interpreted on a larger scale. It is also representative of a wider population and spans a wide full scope of migration experiences and economic outcomes for labor migrants in Asia.


The International Labor Organization (ILO) is one of the leading international institutions in promoting internationally recognized human and labor rights. The ILO takes a leadership role in the continuous development of international guidelines to define and measure labor exploitation around the world. The survey instrument used for this research was inspired by those guidelines and indicators, including the 2009 Operational indicators of trafficking in human beings and the 2012 “Hard to see, harder to count” methodologies (see full report for all indicators). We have also benefited from examining the methods of the Walk Free Foundation in developing quantitative measures of modern slavery.


So what are the indicators that point to modern slavery through labour exploitation? There are three categories:

  1. unfree recruitment;
  2. life and work under duress;
  3. and impossibility to leave.


The questionnaire used for the research was designed to pick up on as many indicators of involuntariness and penalties as possible. The flowchart below depicts how victimhood is calculated.