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.