Modern slavery: people before profit

Here is a well-known fact for you on the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery: it has been estimated by the International Labour Organisation that there are currently 21 million forced labour victims worldwide. Here is a less well-known fact: 33 of them work for me. This figure was generated by Slavery Footprint, a website that asks, “How Many Slaves Work For You?” It questions where and how you live, and demonstrates that modern slavery is as pervasive as ever.

The main reason for this is the increasingly global nature of supply chains, a consequence of economic globalisation which means it is difficult to find products not potentially tainted by slavery. Slavery is  present in your clothes – a Panorama investigation recently revealed slavery, which took the form of Syrian refugee children in the supply chains of Marks and Spencer, Zara, Mango and Asos. It is present in your smart phone, tablet and laptop due to the mining of coltan, a metallic ore made into a component for many gadgets, commonly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children are enslaved and die due to inhumane working conditions. It is present in your cupboard: slavery has been found in both the chicken and fishing industries. And don’t think that vegetarian products are exempt either. The popularity of the avocado has seen drug cartels in Mexico become very involved in the trade of this fruit.

Slavery, while officially abolished, has simply morphed into different forms. Domestic servitude, sex trafficking, forced labour, bonded labour, child labour and forced marriage are all variations of the same condition. Arguably, this is not just a consequence of the current economic arrangement but inherent to it. The world has been dealt a mixed hand by capitalism and free trade. Some argue that these policies have generally improved peoples’ quality of life. Despite advocates of free trade citing deregulation as the solution, the World Bank itself has found that it will only reduce poverty in specific circumstances.

Meanwhile, these policies have undoubtedly created conditions which have made slavery big business with estimated profits of around $150 billion. The process of globalization, marked by free trade, free flow of capital and access to cheap foreign labour markets, has created a form of global apartheid with one in ten people living on less than $2 dollars per day. Researchers and academics such as Brewer have put it more bluntly, noting that these policies have led to significant changes for the lives of people in developing countries, contributing to the emergence of a “fourth world populated by millions of homeless, incarcerated, and otherwise socially excluded people.” Demand for cheap labour has meant the lesser developed countries of the world have become “the factories and workshops for the developed countries.”


Girl staring at camera in a factory cloakroom with other girls sitting on a bench behind her

Cambodian garment factory worker | Photograph ILO/ Livingston Armytage


So how should we combat this? The global economic system is just that after all – a global system. Market-based approaches have been advocated to address issues of supply and demand. Consumers should be informed about where their products come from, while corporations should be held responsible for their supply chains. However, these approaches are not without problems: supply chains, particularly in large corporations, are unbelievably complex. While audits and monitoring are vital components of preventing labour abuses, it matters how much suppliers are paid; whether they are using sub-contractors; how negotiable their contracts are.

To combat slavery, there must be fundamental changes in how businesses operate and across companies and numerous industries, there has been little commitment to such radical change. Additionally, state legislation designed to recognise, prevent and eradicate slavery will only be successful if it first begins to address chronic economic security which lends itself to forced labour practices in the first place and second, if it addresses the reality of our increasingly integrated and connected world where these crimes transcend state borders, by advocating an approach which is truly global.

Given that neoliberal philosophy and reliance upon markets have helped created a situation where peoples’ survival is something that can be bought and sold, it seems strange we would look to that same system for solutions. The solution to forced labour practices lies in a movement from liberal economics to human economics. A universal unconditional basic income has been advocated as a solution with more emancipatory potential due to its focus on eliminating economic vulnerability, while political solutions aiming to address vast inequalities would prevent manifestations of slavery sustained by bureaucratic, political and business interests.

Modern slavery is not an inevitable condition and society should be organised around the basic premise that peoples’ lives are worth more than the latest gadget or food fad. Ultimately, if current economic arrangements are failing to fulfil that, it is high-time to explore other options.

Thumbnail image: May Day Living Wage demonstration in New York City 2013 | Photograph Michael Fleshman

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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