“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.
- 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 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