Baftas slavery warning: It’s even worse than Steve McQueen thinks

Film director Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years A Slave, highlighted the enduring nature of slavery in 21st century Britain at the Baftas last night.

Speaking after his movie won the coveted best picture gong, McQueen got political by pointing out the harrowing injustices highlighted by his film aren't a thing of the past.

"Right now there are 21 million people in slavery as we sit here," he declared.

"I just hope that 150 years from now, our ambivalence will not allow another film-maker to make this film."

It's a good point, well made.

But the slavery problem faced by the world today is even worse than McQueen suggested.

According to the International Labour Organisation, there are almost 21 million people in forced labour around the world – 11.4 million women and girls, and 9.5 million men and boys.

The bulk of these, 19 million, are being exploited by private individuals or enterprises rather than the state or rebel groups, which make up the remaining two million.

This is troubling enough, but other estimates put the number of enslaved people in the world even higher.

Research by Free The Slaves suggests there could be as many as 30 million people in slavery today – more than at any other time in human history.

Separate work by the Walk Free Foundation's global slavery index 2013 found there are an estimated 29.8 million people in modern slavery globally.

That number was calculated by taking the mean between its lower and upper estimates of 28.3 million and 31.3 million respectively.

India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia were judged to be the countries with the highest numbers of enslaved people.

Its index assessed number of slaves, a measure of child marriage and a measure of human trafficking in and out of a country.

"It would be comforting to think that slavery is a relic of history, but it remains a scar on humanity on every continent," Walk Free Foundation's chief executive Nick Grono says.

"Most governments don't dig deeply into slavery for a lot of bad reasons. There are exceptions, but many governments don’t want to know about people who can't vote, who are hidden away, and are likely to be illegal anyway. The laws are in place, but the tools and resources and the political will are lacking. And since hidden slaves can't be counted it is easy to pretend they don't exist."

McQueen's hopes that his film has highlighted the issue aren't unfounded. In Westminster, MPs who saw the film didn't forget the problem continues to raise uncomfortable issues. In the UK, it's sex trafficking which is the biggest headache for policymakers.

Now organisations are calling for more pressure on the ten countries which, between them, are responsible for three-quarters of modern slavery.

At the heart of the problem is a complete removal of slaves' monetary value. In the American South in 1850, an average slave cost the equivalent of $40,000 in today's money. That made them integral to the economy of the South – and hard to ignore.

Today a slave costs an average of $90. Governments can literally afford to ignore them. So the moral force of the anti-slavery campaign becomes all the more important in persuading states to act.

McQueen may have underplayed the scale of the problem, but his film will do far more to help raise awareness than anything else on the political agenda this year.