Modern Slavery: a brief introduction

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

– The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948

It is estimated there are nearly 46 million people enslaved around the world today, this is more than at any other point in history.  Although modern slavery is more often referred to as trafficking.  This change in language may seem minor but it is a change which erases, or hides, the epic history of slavery and anti slavery campaigning.

Why are there so many people enslaved today? 

It’s obviously a multifaceted answer but a few key aspects include higher international populations leading to supply far exceeded demand, widescale corruption and poverty (and with it the related lack of education, lack of opportunities and health impacts) as well as the increased globalisation of the economy.

Comparing the situation today, to the slavery of the 1800s which most of us are more familiar with:

  • The price of slaves has fallen significantly since the 1800s: The enslaved fieldworker who cost the equivalent of $40,000 in 1850 costs less than $100 today. This dramatic fall in price has forever altered the basic economic equation of slavery.
  • Slaves are less of an investment: The return to be made on slaves in 1850 Alabama averaged around 5 percent. Today returns from slavery start in the double figures and range as high as 800 percent.
  • Slaves are disposable: They are cheap and widely available, thus there is less incentive to look after them and if they are unable to do what you want from them, it is cheaper to just get rid of them.
What does slavery look like today?
Slaves are used in many industries and the chances are they will have been involved in the production of goods that are in your home.  Slavery Footprint allows you to work out how many slaves “work” for you and highlights all the different industries which are touched by slavery.
Types of slavery include:
  • Child trafficking; Young people are moved around the country or the world so they can be exploited.
  • Forced Labour; People forced to work against their will, with little or no pay and the threat of violence.
  • Debt Bondage; Loans are taken out by victims (eg for school tuition or health care costs which they can’t pay without the loan).  They are then forced to work to pay off debts that realistically they never will be able to. This debt may be passed down to their children.
  • Sexual Exploitation; This includes forced and abusive sexual acts including prostitution, escort work and pornography. Women and children are the main victims but men can also be sexually exploited.
  • Criminal Exploitation; Slaves are used to carry out criminal acts such as cannabis cultivation or pick pocketing against their will.
  • Domestic Servitude; Victims are forced to carry out housework and domestic chores in private households with little or no pay, restricted movement, very limited or no free time and minimal privacy often sleeping where they work.
In 2013 the National Referral Mechanism, the UK’s victim identification and support process, received 1,746 referrals of potential victims of trafficking – almost a 50 percent increase on 2012 figures. 64% of the referrals were female and 36% male.  74% were adults and 26% children.  They came from 112 countries of origin. The five most prevalent being Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam, Romania and the United Kingdom.  Obviously these are just the people that the UK Government had referred to them.  There will be many more who are unknown or unreferred…
What about the law?
As mentioned above, a lot of slavery goes ahead in countries where corruption is rife and bribes allow slave owners to avoid the legal ramifications of any law that a country has around slavery.

In terms of the UK, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 established an independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, and makes provision for the protection of slavery victims. As of October 2015, a supply chain clause requires every business with a turnover of more than £36m to prove that it has taken steps to stamp out slave and child labour from its supply chain.  Although this isn’t perfect and there are loopholes, it is a start.

In 2000, the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  It enhanced pre-existing criminal penalties in other related laws, gave new protections to trafficking victims and made available certain benefits and services to victims of severe forms of trafficking.

Slavery and ecocide

One thing you may not have considered is the impact that slavery has on habitats.  Kevin Bale, during his research on slavery, found that it causes environmental destruction which contributes to climate change. Slaves are used for illegal deforestation for logging, protected land is cleared and poisoned for mining, mangroves are destroyed to create space for shrimp processing plants. This has a clear impact on the environment but also damages the wildlife in the area which may lose their homes, food or be poisoned themselves.
To help get your mind around the impact that slavery has on the planet consider all of the slaves today, 45 million people, as a country.  The country’s population would be comparable to Canada, the GPD would be similar to that of Angola (at US $150 billion a year this is considerably poorer than Canada) and the country would be the worlds 3rd largest emitter of CO2 (after China and the US).  Slavery is a human rights issue, obviously, but it is also a climate change issue and an environmental and species protection issue.
I have been doing a Future Learn course on the issue of modern slavery which has really opened my eyes to the extent of the issue.  I’d highly recommend the course and whilst they don’t have a date for it to run again, you can register your interest to be notified when details are arranged.
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