Article 4. of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” 150 years ago slavery was illegalized in all countries but still today millions of people around the world are forced into labour. Viviane Stroede investigates the roots and causes of modern-day slavery and the impact it has.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) there are around 21 million people forced into labour today, although due to its illegality there is no exact census. It is a global problem especially for developing countries and poverty-stricken people, whose vulnerability is being exploited by others for the gain of profit.
According to the 1930 Forced Labour Convention slavery is “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.”
Traditional definitions of slavery have changed and a distinction between different forms of forced labour has developed:
Bonded labour affects millions of people around the world. People become bonded labourers by not being able to repay loans and being forced to work for free in an attempt to repay the debt, which can be passed down through generations of families.
Forced labour affects people who are illegally employed and forced to work for little or no pay, usually under the threat of violence.
Slavery by descent describes people who are born into a family that belong to a class of slaves.
Trafficking involves the transport and trade of people for the purpose of forcing them into labour.
Forced marriage affects women and girls who are married without consent and are forced into lives of sexual and domestic servitude.
Child slavery is widely spread in the cocoa, fisheries and sex industries, as well as child soldiers. Children are being separated from their parents and forced into labour that is harmful to their health and welfare.
According to Beate Andrees, head of the Forced Labour Programme of the International Labour Organisation of the United Nations, “there are certain economic sectors that are more vulnerable than others, which are domestic work, prostitution, construction, agriculture and manufacturing, including the textile industry. If you are trying to get a job in one of those industries you are already at a higher risk. Additionally certain groups of the population are more vulnerable than others. Apart from the fact that women are slightly in the majority among the victims, we also know that indigenous people, in particular irregular migrant workers, in some parts of Africa descendents from slaves, from the old slave system are more vulnerable than others. Interestingly education is not always an indicator whether you are vulnerable or not, as it is more a question of discrimination. Groups that are discriminated within their society have a higher risk than others. ”
According to Terry Fitzpatrick, communications director of Free the Slaves, “today with overpopulation, mass migration from poor rural areas , from poor countries to wealthier areas, there is people trying to find any kind of job and that’s were traffickers are able to pray on people, pretending to offer real jobs. When they get them in place or often move them somewhere else they find the person is trapped- they are in a country where they don’t have legal standing or they don’t understand their rights or they don’t even know the language. They certainly don’t have any money, so they are trapped. These people are truly disposable to them because the investment in those people today is around $ 90 for an average slave. So you can work them to death, literally and then just find somebody else.”
Although forced labour is a global problem, it is more concentrated in the global south. According to Terry Fitzpatrick, “debt bondage slavery is the number one form of slavery and you find it in agriculture, you find it in brick kilns, you find people working at carpet factories and other kinds of light manufacturing. You find this concentration of slavery throughout India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Other hot spots are Brazil especially in the agricultural, the timber cutting sector and the cattle ranching sector. There are a lot of cases of forced labour to be found in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, a lot of that is in fishing and in cocoa farming. Then you find a lot of slavery in the palm oil sector in south East Asia. So some of the slavery is connected to the global supply chain, some of it isn’t. Some of it has popped up because of world globalisation; some of it is a vestige of an old serf system for landless peasants in Brazil. Some of it is new forms of slavery, some of it ancient forms of slavery. ”
People can fall into slavery for generations over little amounts such as $ 100, which they borrowed of a landowner or factory owner in the time of an emergency, but people end up not being able to repay them and therefore are indebted.
According to Andrees “the rule of law and governance is a key issue. In countries where you don’t have a rule of law and in conflict ridden areas you have a higher risk of slavery. Another reason is discrimination. When there is systematic structural discrimination against certain groups, then there is a higher risk of them being exploited. They are not only discriminated in life generally but also in the work place, if they have access to jobs at all.”
In 2005, the International Labour Organisation estimated that illegal profits from prostitution alone amounted to more than $ 44 billion. In 2009 the loss in terms of unpaid wages and illegal recruitment fees summed up to $ 21 billion per year.
Terry Fitzpatrick says “it is easy to think that the price of my laptop or cell phone or my t-shirt or my car or my coffee is lower because slaves are being exploited and not paid to do it. The reality is it would not change the cost of your products by one cent if slavery were to be removed from those product supply chains. That is because when you get to the global commodity price level, those prices are set on world markets in London, in New York and in Tokyo and other places. The people who exploit slaves to mine precious metals or to harvest cocoa beans are selling those products at world market prices, not undercutting that market. It is a criminal enterprise where the ring leaders are skimming the profit of the top, not passing along the savings to anyone”.
Areas which are hit hardest by those losses in income are poverty- stricken communities, as there is no possibility of improving the living standards.
“Billions of dollars a year are being lost out on. Therefore getting rid of slavery is not just the right thing to do but it is the smart thing to do for economic development around the world. If you were to take $ 20 billion and put it back into the hands of poor vulnerable people in rural communities or in urban poverty hotspots, the people there would invest it in building better homes, in buying school books or uniforms for their kids, getting health care, doing all the kind of things that international aid agencies are now spending tax money to do”, Terry adds.
According to Beate, “forced labour is not just a crime against a person, because the key really in why forced labour still exists is because profits can be made and profits are largely being made on the expense of workers by squeezing their wages or not paying any wages at all. It is only through real employment that people will work their way out of poverty. In some sectors and often in sectors that are not well regulated it is easy to abuse and to exploit workers. People are basically kept in a vicious cycle of dependence and poverty”.
Though what can be done on a global and individual level? Trying to build attention in Europe and North America for a problem that is worst in the global south is always a challenge.
According to Terry, “the root causes of slavery are things we need to work at. We can’t end slavery simply by rescuing slaves; because if you don’t convict the traffickers or shut down the facilities where people are enslaved, someone else will just be enslaved to take their place. People fall into slavery for reasons; they are vulnerable for certain reasons, such as poverty or unequal statuses for women and girls, racial or tribal or ethnic discrimination and traditional patterns. There are many reasons why people fall into slavery and if you don’t solve those problems, the people who are rescued or break free are likely to fall back into slavery themselves, so we talk about sustainable freedom as the key to ending slavery.”
It becomes clear that it is important to not only address the symptoms of slavery but also the root causes. “We need to focus on the structures that facilitate modern day slavery,” Beate states.
In recent years there has been a movement towards corporate supply chain accountability in the United States. The European Union is now also moving into the same direction by developing laws and guidelines that would require companies to investigate their product supply chains all the way down to the raw materials, in order to rid slavery from their products.
According to Terry “you can’t rid the world of slavery with one computer purchase at a time or one cup of cocoa at a time. We are working to try to improve the supply chains of entire industries, not just individual companies or individual purchases. It still takes consumer alertness.”
Factory and land owners worldwide profit from the vulnerability of some of the poorest people in the world. It becomes clear that modern-day slavery is an issue which directly interconnects producer and consumer countries, underdeveloped and developed countries, and therefore makes it a problem that needs to be confronted at a global level.
Raising awareness about the issue is essential in the fight against modern- day slavery. Buying fair trade products as often as you can is already a first step towards encountering the issue on an individual level.
For more information on the topic go to :
Free the Slaves: https://www.freetheslaves.net/SSLPage.aspx
A short documentary on modern-day slavery in Thailand: http://vimeo.com/21008174
You can find a collection of articles on modern-day slavery by The Guardian here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/slavery