By Elin Wilson

Have you ever been in a job that you did not like? A job that was difficult, too time-consuming or that did not pay you very well? If you have been in such a job you might have felt as if you had drawn the shorter straw. You may have felt as if you were giving up your time and energy for not much in return, as if you were slaving away in a place that did not appreciate you enough. And if that experience was bad, imagine literally slaving away: working for hours on end in a place that had bought your time, energy and skills – but not from you but instead from the person who sold you. These are some of the aspects of modern slavery; a difficult political subject and a devastating reality for far too many people around the world.

Modern slavery is a multi-faceted issue that takes different forms in different places. It is a trade but instead of everyday goods, the commodities that are being sold, shipped and used, are human beings. This is a multi-billion-dollar form of organized crime that affects millions of people around the world. The UK-based human rights organization, Anti-Slavery, estimates that about 40.3 million people are caught in modern slavery. They outline six different types of modern slavery: forced labour, debt bondage, human trafficking, descent-based slavery, child slavery and forced marriage. These different types may, at first glance, look very different to each other but they do have one very important thing in common – the victim is involuntarily put in a situation that they have not chosen and cannot freely opt out of. Instead, they are forced to work and perform tasks that they do not themselves benefit directly from and often endure abuse from others.  

Since modern slavery can take so many different forms and therefore look a different in different places, a few common characteristics are used to identify the phenomenon. A person is considered to be a victim of slavery if they are forced to work either through mental or physical threats or through other forms of coercion. The case could also be that the person is trapped and controlled by their employer by abusive or threatening actions. This could also take the form of physical constraints or restrictions on a person’s freedom of movement. They could be dehumanised and treated as a commodity or as property that can be bought and sold. The most common form of modern slavery is debt bondage. This occurs when a person is unable to repay a loan they have taken and is required to pay off this debt with work instead of money. Since they are already indebted to their employer, in many cases they quickly lose control of their employment situation and the conditions of the original loan. The work they do to repay the loan may also require them to put themselves in even further debt to afford the necessary equipment or materials. And while they are not being paid for the work they are doing as loan repayment, this work is often undervalued so that the growing interest of the original loan keeps them indebted to their employer indefinitely. 

A concept that is often used together and sometimes interchangeably with modern slavery is that of human trafficking. While modern slavery describes a situation with involuntary work and often inhumane conditions, human trafficking is a sub-category of this phenomenon. Trafficking is, simply described, the act of moving and dealing in illegal goods or commodities. Human trafficking is when these illegal goods are human beings. Human trafficking is therefore an integral part of modern slavery and enables the moving of victims within and across national borders. Understanding this dynamic is especially important when it comes to studying the forms of modern slavery that take place in most of the countries of the global north. These countries are not origin countries but rather recipients for persons in slavery. This means that while their citizens are most likely not at risk themselves, they may be complicit in the abuse of others. 

Fortunately many countries have legislation that is intended to safeguard persons from slavery in all its forms. These types of laws can take many shapes and forms but among the most common are age restrictions for marriage, regulations on labour conditions and criminalization of sex work. While helpful for the purposes of offering formal regulations and prosecuting offenders, legislation can still only do so much. Raising awareness and fostering social norms about acceptable behaviour are vital in tackling modern slavery. To this end, it is important to listen to the stories of those who have survived enslavement and to learn from their experiences. While some forms of modern slavery can be easier to spot than others, many are very difficult to identify, especially to the untrained eye of a regular citizen. A very effective way of exercising consumer power is to not support businesses who are known to be engaged in this form of abuse. Reporting any suspicions of someone being a victim of modern slavery to local law enforcement is also important. 

Legislators and law enforcement often face the daunting task of trying to keep up with offenders, something that means they need to constantly update their methods and tactics. Increasingly though, the attention has been on prevention as much as it has been on traditional police work. Scholars have highlighted the need of addressing the complex root causes of modern slavery, namely the structural patterns that keep people in vulnerability. Alleviating poverty and pushing for structural changes that help empower women and children, have been propagated as two ways of tackling these root causes. A greater degree of collaboration and information-sharing between national governments and non governmental organisations is also key. Understanding the international, rather than national, nature of the criminal networks involved could help those dealing with these issues work more efficiently, find better solutions and ultimately help more of those who are affected. No matter the way chosen to tackle the issue it is important to remember that modern slavery is in violation not only with workers’ rights but also with human rights. It invokes vital questions about the value of a person, not as a commodity but as a human being, and forces us to consider the ways in which people are treated within labour markets worldwide.

Illustration: Danil Belia

Author: Elin Wilson

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