Modern slavery: a vast industry, a global responsibility

It is an interesting if alarming fact that Amsterdam’s red light district has become a light-hearted source of entertainment for the ‘lad culture’ that exists in the UK today. While many young men would not consider purchasing services from a prostitute in Great Britain, they see doing so in Amsterdam as a tantalising possibility. It is as if all sense of concern for the rights of these women is washed away by the waves of the Channel.

Prostitution is a divisive issue, with various national models touted and denounced in equal measure. However, one thing governments universally agree on is that the safety and well-being of the women and men involved in the industry are of paramount importance. Particularly when they may have been victims of human trafficking.

Around the world, an estimated 45.8 million people in 167 countries are in some form of modern slavery, according to The Global Slavery Index. Modern slavery, or human trafficking, is defined by the UN Palermo Protocol by three key factors:

  • The attainment of a human being
  • A lack of consent by that human being to the attainment
  • The attainment of the human being is for the purpose of exploitation

Individuals can be trafficked for a number of reasons, including ‘sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude, forced criminal activity, sham marriages and organ removal.’ For example, an estimated 3,000 children have been trafficked from Vietnam to the UK to work in the marijuana industry. Food for thought next time you have the munchies.

street running alongside canal in amsterdam with prostitute windows lit up

Amsterdam’s red light district | Photograph Bulleuh


Sexual exploitation remains one of the most difficult areas to assess in the wider human trafficking industry, given the secretive nature of prostitution. However, a 2010 UNODC report estimates the annual influx of trafficked individuals to Europe for the purpose of sexual exploitation as 70,000 victims. The same report estimates the industry is worth approximately USD3 billion (roughly £2 billion). The lucrative nature of this business suggests that it is likely to continue, despite strong efforts to criminalise the practice in almost every country in the world.

Efforts to legislate against slavery in the UK include the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which received royal assent on March 26 of that year (the same day as the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, a historical act that recognised the UK’s commitment to international development spending). The original bill was sponsored by Theresa May MP, allowing for optimism in the anti-slavery community as to the utility of the bill, given Mrs May’s new position as Prime Minister. The Act established an anti-slavery commissioner – at present Kevin Hyland – and, importantly, created a new statutory defence for victims who have been forced to commit crimes. Other elements include the consolidation of offences, the provision of advocates for child victims, civil orders to enable restrictions to be placed on convicted offenders, and a compensation mechanism for victims.

woman facing away from camera with bar code saying 'slave' stamped on her shoulder

Photograph: Ira Gelb/Flickr


Despite these efforts, in the UK, thousands of people are currently enslaved and the number continues to rise. The National Crime Agency reported a 245% increase in potential victims trafficked into Europe over the last five years. Indeed, across the whole of Europe, trafficking continues to increase. For example, the trafficking of Nigerian women for prostitution is currently at crisis level, according to the UN. This rise is what makes today, Anti-Slavery Day, so important.

In terms of the ‘lad culture’ that has made seeing the red light district of Amsterdam after a trip to a cannabis café a rite of passage, it seems this kind of activity could be encouraging the profitability of the human trafficking industry. Certainly, it does nothing to promote the rights of victims or condemnation of those committing the offence. Anti-Slavery Day encourages all to revisit their priorities and daily decisions that may, in some way, be contributing to the practice of human trafficking. In such a massive industry, all global citizens have a part to play in ending it for good. It is a vast industry, and a global responsibility.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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