Blood money

Slavery is a $150bn industry built on human suffering. Nick Grono, CEO of the Freedom Fund, argues that we must do more to help the more than 40 million men, women and children entrapped around the world today.

Slavery has been with us for millennia, documented in records scratched on 4,000-year-old tablets. And, while it would be comforting to think that slavery is a relic of history, sadly that is not the case. Despite the powerful work of past abolitionists, it still exists in every country in the world – and continues to thrive in many.

Although slavery is prohibited everywhere, an estimated 46 million people are enslaved today. The essence of this horrific crime is the control of individuals through violence and other forms of coercion, to force them to work.  

Modern-day slavery touches all of us. Our mobile phones contain minerals often sourced from Congolese mines where children labour under the control of militias. Our supermarket shelves are likely stocked with cheap prawns and fish from Thailand, produced by Burmese and Cambodian migrants enslaved on Thai fishing boats.

Our cheap clothing may have been manufactured by girls in bondage in Bangladesh, or made from cotton produced by forced labour in Uzbekistan. And in our cities, vulnerable girls and women in search of better lives have likely been deceived and forced to work in brothels, subject to rape on a nightly basis.

But why is slavery so prevalent, given that it is prohibited in every country? The answer is that modern slavery thrives when three factors intersect. These are the demand for extremely cheap labour; individual vulnerability and marginalisation; and weak rule of law.

Slavery is fuelled by the demand for extremely cheap labour. Of course, there is nothing legally wrong with seeking lower labour costs, as long as this is done in compliance with the law. But when it comes to modern slavery, the objective is to pay excessively low wages, invariably in breach of the law.

From the view of the perpetrator, there is a compelling economic case for slavery. It allows businesses to illicitly shrink their labour costs, producing ever-cheaper goods and services while maximising profits. According to the International Labour Organisation, annual profits from slavery amount to $150bn.

The demand for cheap inputs is also driven by our globalised economy, with supply chains often spanning continents. Multinationals may have five or six layers in their supply chains: from the high-street retailer all the way back to the cotton picker in Uzbekistan, the fisherman in Thailand, or the miner in the Congo. 

At each layer there is pressure to reduce costs further, so we consumers can get our $3 t-shirts, cheap prawn-sushi, or ever-faster smartphones.

The demand for cheap labour is ever-present, but it does not enable slavery on its own. Slavery requires vulnerable human beings – who can be tricked or coerced into exploitative situations – as well as a failure to hold those breaking the law accountable for their crimes.

Vulnerability often takes the form of poverty. Poverty alone is not a determinant of slavery: many poor countries and regions are not disproportionately afflicted with slavery. But where you have poverty combined with a lack of economic alternatives, people take risks in the quest for a better life.

It causes people to engage in risky migration, enabling criminals and traffickers to take advantage of their desire for a better future. Young women from Ukraine or Moldova, for example, are often deceived by promises of better lives in western countries. Despite having heard stories of the risks of sex trafficking, they migrate anyway, hoping the horror stories won’t happen to them.

Vulnerability takes many other forms such as conflict and displacement, caste, ethnicity, gender, illiteracy, and migrant status, usually combined with societal discrimination against the differentiating trait.

Migrants and refugees are particularly vulnerable. Syrian refugees are now being heavily exploited in the fields in Lebanon and factories in Turkey, given their desperate need to work – often illegally – to survive.   

Finally, we have the rule of law. Modern slavery is prohibited under international law, and illegal everywhere. It is also morally repugnant. So the fact that slavery exists on the scale it does, means that there is a fundamental failure in implementing the law, and in internalising the norms against slavery and extreme exploitation. Modern slavery thrives under weak rule of law and bad governance. It is enabled by corruption, and practised by abusive power-holders.

Whole communities in South Asia are openly enslaved through debt bondage and forced to work in brick kilns or stone quarries, which are often owned by local criminal or political figures, and given protection by officials. The massive red light districts in India’s big cities are a vacuum for trafficked minors; brothels thrive because of police and bureaucratic indifference at best, and co-option at worst.

Conflict-ridden countries and those with weak institutions are at particular risk of exposing their citizens to a heightened risk of slavery, along with many other evils. Think of child soldiers in Central Africa, the sexual slavery of girls and women practiced by ISIS and Boko Haram, and the use of forced labour by rebels and government militias alike to extract conflict minerals.

All of this makes fighting modern slavery a daunting task, as it means confronting powerful economic models, entrenched discrimination and corruption and abusive power-holders. That’s no small task.

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Mohammed Salamad, 14, is reunited with his father at a transit shelter in the Nepali bordertown, Birganj. Salamad had been on his way to Mumbai to find work, but was rescued by a local NGO. Photo: supplied.

“It’s shameful that slavery still exists in the 21st century. But I believe that, together, we can end this crime against humanity”

There are, however, reasons to be optimistic. First, political and religious leaders are increasingly championing the fight. US President Barack Obama has long been a vocal advocate of anti-slavery efforts. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has declared slavery “the great human rights issue of our time” and affirmed her commitment “to rid our world of this barbaric evil”.

India, home to an estimated 18 million people in slavery, has introduced new legislation to combat sex and labour trafficking. And Pope Francis is a highly visible and vocal proponent of efforts to combat slavery and exploitation. 

Second, businesses are also becoming more aware of the presence of slavery in their supply chains. Transparency legislation in the UK and California, and reputational risk, is encouraging them to take action beyond superficial declarations of intent.

Third, we are beginning to see increased interest by funders in support of anti-slavery efforts. Given the relative paucity of resources currently devoted to fight this $150bn criminal industry, that’s a welcome development – and yet we have a long way to go.

Fourth, there has been an explosion of investigative journalism into slavery, led by the Guardian, Thomson Reuters, Associated Press, the New York Times, Al Jazeera and others. This media increases the awareness of consumers, and pressures businesses and governments to do better.

Fifth, new advances in technology are driving greater transparency. Technology allows us to be connected to the people and stories behind our products in ways that were never possible before. It drives better communication, allowing organisations and companies to listen to workers and help them to better express their rights. 

And finally, all of these developments are contributing to consumers becoming more aware of slavery and its role in producing products like mobile phones, fast fashion and low-cost seafood. Consumers have the power to demand that brands and their suppliers do better, and that is an important lever for change.

It’s shameful that slavery still exists in the 21st century and that every country is besmirched by this evil. But I believe that, together, we can end this crime against humanity.

I invite you to join in this growing global anti-slavery movement so that we can complete the work of those abolitionists who have gone before us, and end the nightmare of slavery once and for all. - PA