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Slavery is a thing of the past, right? Think again.

Most people think slavery is a thing of the past and has nothing to do with them. They’re wrong on both counts.

Slaves or trafficked victims are exploited in mining (gold, coltan, molybdenum, niobium, tin), agriculture, weaving, ship breaking, brick and charcoal making, timber cutting, quarrying, and fish processing. Victims are also involved in pornography, prostitution, organ removal, begging, and contract marriage.

The products of slave labor end up in cell phones (50 million in use in 1995, roughly 7 billion now), laptop computers, jewelry, steel, seafood and beef, sweets, videos, and even the raw granite that is carved into kitchen countertops and tombstones. The toil and suffering of trafficking victims infuses consumers’ lives everywhere.

Defining Modern Slavery

No one knows for certain how many such victims exist. Partly this is a matter of definition and varied terms; slavery and human trafficking, for instance, are overlapping but not precisely identical categories.

The U.S. Department of State identifies several related categories of compulsion: sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, forced labor, forced child labor, bonded labor (or debt bondage), domestic servitude, and unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers. The terms peonage and serfdom also denote forced labor.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily. . . . In essence, persons are in a forced labour situation if they enter work or service against their freedom of choice, and cannot leave it without penalty or the threat of penalty.”

Slavery scholar and activist Kevin Bales has argued that “slavery is the complete control of one person by another, and violence is used to maintain that control in all forms of slavery. The adults in that situation know that if they attempt to leave, they may be killed.” Clearly there are gradations in the extent of compulsion and the penalties for defying it.

The Scale of Slavery Today

The ambiguity surrounding the numbers of enslaved and trafficked persons also stems from the obvious fact that these are secretive practices, and firm data are rare. There are no relevant censuses, only estimates—or guesstimates—and the range of resulting numbers is wide.

The ILO believes that almost 21 million people worldwide are victims of forced labor (see figure), roughly equal to the entire population of Niger. In his recent book Blood and Earth, Bales argues that the best estimate is 35.8 million, about the population of Poland or the state of California. This figure has been sharply disputed on methodological grounds (also see here) and clearly much better data are needed, but even if it exaggerates by a factor of two, 18 million (about the population of Chile) is still a shocking number. In fact, any of these numbers is very likely the highest absolute number of slaves at any given time in human history.

Slavery 1

Source: International Labour Organization

Why Slavery?

Slavery and forced labor are an economic strategy that essentially began with civilization. According to Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, of the four primary forms of human social organization, bands rarely or never kept slaves, tribes sometimes did, while chiefdoms and states usually did, and did so intensively. This pattern tracks with the emergence of fixed settlements and eventually cities, and with what economist John Gowdy calls ultrasociality.

As Gowdy wrote in Worldwatch’s State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, such societies are organized around role specialization and production for surplus rather than subsistence. Ultrasociality entails hierarchies, organization, and lots of energy, and for thousands of years slaves were the primary source of cheap energy. (It is probably no coincidence that abolition of the slave trade, while informed and driven by moral considerations, broadly coincided with the development of fossil fuels as even cheaper energy sources.) Slaves could also be assigned to “specialize” in many of the least desirable tasks required to make society run. This pattern can still be seen today, where many or most trafficked humans are intended for specific roles, including sexual services, housekeeping, or mine labor.

Whether slavery is a sound economic strategy (from a strictly coldblooded, amoral perspective) is a subject of long debate, but at many times and places, it has been irresistible. One study on investing in slave labor in the American South concluded that it could earn a return of 13 percent, about double the returns on investments in railroads. (Some scholars argue, however, that the long-term effect of slavery was to inhibit the South’s industrialization and thus its development of a mature economy.) These days, according to the ILO, forced labor generates $150 billion in profits every year.

The economic prominence of slavery is expressed in a fascinating, if appalling, graphic created by Slate’s Andrew Kahn and Jamelle Bouie. It tracks 20,528 voyages of slave ships from Africa to the Americas during the period 1545–1833. The authors note that more than 12.5 million African slaves were embarked on slave ships, with an estimated 2 million or more dying en route—an attrition rate of at least 16 percent. Only the cheapness of human slaves made such losses economically tolerable.

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Click for animation.

Degradation: Human and Environmental

Anecdotal accounts suggest that slavery and human trafficking are linked with environmental degradation by poverty. Environmental distress can lead to poverty as, for example, drought or soil erosion destroys peoples’ livelihoods. This makes them more vulnerable to trafficking. Those who are enslaved or driven into circumstances of forced labor are often put to work in projects that damage the environment. This pattern can span generations, as some forced laborers are born into bondage—a condition common in the lives of slaves in the Americas and that continues to trap some forced laborers, such as granite quarriers in northern India.

Environmental destruction associated with slave or forced labor is not new. For example, the slave-based economy in the American South was marked by heavy exploitation not only of people but of land and soils as well, leading to soil erosion and exhaustion.

More recent examples include destruction of mangrove forests in the Sundarbans, a vast river delta region shared by Bangladesh and India. The huge forests are a substantial carbon sink but are under clearance pressure, sometimes using forced labor, to make space for shrimp farms. A 2013 report from Greenpeace International documented the use of slave labor in clearing Amazon forest areas to make charcoal, which is subsequently used in making steel for the manufacture of autos and tractors—many of them built by U.S. firms.

The full extent of the environmental destruction wrought by enterprises exploiting slaves and forced labor is impossible to determine, for the same reason that the number of enslaved persons remains murky: lack of data. Kevin Bales claims that “if slavery were a country . . . its CO2 emissions would rank third globally after China and the U.S.”—another bold assertion resting on estimates and extrapolations. (There’s no doubt, however, that environmental stressors often trigger surges in trafficking.)

In the end, however, the environmentally destructive uses of slavery and forced labor are not the strongest reason for acting to end them; the strongest reason is their moral outrageousness. The fact that outrage has failed to carry the day so far is more a reflection of the difficulty of eradicating these ancient and deeply entrenched practices and the weakness of national and international institutions, than of the justness of the cause.

Taking Action Against Slavery

How to fight slavery and trafficking? At the international level, the United Nations-sponsored Sustainable Development Goals express and mobilize the global revulsion with human trafficking by including several targets related to it:

  • Target 16.2 calls for the “end of abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children,”
  • Target 2 advocates the elimination of “all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation,” and
  • Target 8.7 calls for “immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”

The UN is also active through the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which sponsors an annual World Day Against Trafficking in Persons (30 July) and publishes the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.

Many nonprofit organizations are working to raise awareness about these issues and offer a wealth of information about slavery, forced labor, debt bondage, and human trafficking. They include the groups Open Hand, My Refuge House, Anti-Slavery International, and Free The Slaves. The anti-slavery coalition End Slavery Now has compiled a list of hundreds of local and national organizations around the globe that are involved in exposing, resisting, and mitigating slavery and human trafficking and its consequences.

Any of these websites invites visitors to contribute funds toward their work, and several offer other ways to lend a hand. My Refuge House, for example, has a downloadable guide to sponsoring a “freedom party” to raise awareness among friends and neighbors of trafficking issues. Anti-Slavery International’s website features several web pages with specific fundraising and action strategies for school and university students and members of faith groups and trade unions. The long list of organizations on End Slavery Now’s website indicates which of them welcome volunteers, and a great many do.

For businesses, the ILO (a UN organization) publishes a handbook to assist them in “strengthening their capacity to address the risk of forced labour and human trafficking in their own operations and in global supply chains.” The handbook makes explicit why it makes business sense to do so: forced labor and human trafficking are illegal, of course, but businesses also have a deep stake in managing their risk and reputations, and engaging in or tolerating trafficking themselves or among their suppliers increases risk exposure and endangers reputations. The 150-page guide includes basic facts and figures on trafficking, internationally agreed definitions of various terms, action tips, checklists for assessing compliance, an FAQ for managers and human-resource personnel, and case studies.

Finally, consumers can take action with their purchases—exercising economic power to fight an evil economic strategy. The next time you buy a new cell phone or laptop—having waited until the old one is totally dead, of course—go online to the manufacturer’s website and see if you can find its policies on using forced-labor-produced minerals in its products. If you don’t like what you see, tell them so, and shop elsewhere. If you have to remodel your kitchen, make sure that beautiful granite countertop you want is legally sourced.

There are dozens of videos available online that vividly showcase the nature and extent of slavery and human trafficking (and how deeply it has penetrated consumer product supply chains), our ignorance and denial of them, and victims’ own stories.


Tom Prugh is senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of the State of the World project.

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