When thinking about slavery, people have the tendency to view it as “past history” and many will probably argue that slavery was definitively abolished during the nineteenth century. However, even if slavery was formally abolished by almost all countries more than one century ago, the exploitation of human beings is more than a reality.

And it is a very sad reality, especially if we think that probably there are more individuals trafficked across borders today than in any other period in history. Even if it appears as something unthinkable for today’s society, slavery is present almost everywhere in the world. New forms of slavery have emerged as a by-product of globalisation.

The process of gradual prohibition of slavery at the international level started with the adoption by the League of Nations of two treaties addressing the trade of human beings. These treaties are the 1904 International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade and the 1910 International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade. These two agreements were the fruit of an era of exploitation across the Atlantic and thus did not address slavery from a broad perspective, but focused mainly on the classic trans-oceanic slavery practice of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Later, new instruments were adopted encompassing new forms of exploitation. In 1949 the United Nations adopted the Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. This document was followed by a more authoritative international instrument addressing the issue, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

Slavery is also prohibited by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states that: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”. However, despite official documents condemning and prohibiting it, slavery still exists and continues to plague our contemporary society affecting people of all races, cultural identity, age and gender.

Today’s forms of slavery

The 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery mentions various forms of exploitation that can be considered contemporary forms of slavery. The convention states that "debt bondage, serfdom, forced marriage and the delivery of a child for the exploitation of that child are all slavery-like practices and require criminalisation and abolishment".

Following this definition and the ideas provided by other legal instruments, one can identify several slavery-like behaviours that plague contemporary society. These behaviours are: forced labour, bonded labour, descent-based slavery, trafficking, child slavery, early and forced marriage and sexual exploitation.Here is a short analysis of these new forms of slavery:

Forced labour occurs when people are forced to work with the use of violence and intimidation. The 1930 forced labour convention describes forces labour as "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".

Bonded labour occurs when people fall into debt and are forced to work unpaid to repay it. Rarely workers are able to repay their debt with their work and very often the debt is transmitted through generations.

Descent-based slavery occurs when the “slave status” is inherited by children from their parents or community.

Child slavery encompasses all forms of slavery that involve children. This kind of slavery usually includes forced labour for industries and agriculture, domestic work, forced begging and even exploitation as child soldiers or, in case of girls, as soldiers’ wives. According to an ILO estimate there are around 5.5 million children in slavery across the world. And UNICEF estimated that there are around 300.000 child soldiers in over 30 areas of conflict.

Early and forced marriage occurs when women are forced to marry against their will, generally when they are still little girls. Every year 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 often against their will and condemned to a life of servitude, deprivation and dependency on their husband. More than 30% of women living today were married before the age of 18.

Sexual exploitation generally targets women and is usually linked to trafficking.

Trafficking

The majority of people are exploited where they live but there is also a growing number of men, women and children who are traded internally or internationally. Trafficking is the contemporary form of the Atlantic Slave Trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Trafficking involves the trade of people from a country to another or from a region to another within the same country. People are induced to cross international borders to find a new or better job. Once the victims arrive, they are generally forced in bonded labour.

Trafficking is defined by article 3 of the Protocol as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation."

Despite much more attention is dedicated to trafficking for sexual exploitation, there is also a high and growing number of trafficked people who end up in forced labour.

The majority of trafficked individuals come from Eastern Europe countries such as Albania, Belarus, Romania and Russia and from Asian countries such as China and Thailand. The most common destinations for traffickers are Asia, Western Europe, North America and the Middle East.

Once arrived at their destinations, slaves are exploited for sex or are forced to work unpaid mainly as domestic servants or construction workers and in some cases even as camel jockeys in the Middle East.

Traffickers usually offer poor people a loan at an exaggerated interest rate in order to cover travel and paper expenses and other logistic costs. Once arrived in the new country, there is no promised job and the victims become forced labourers since they are not able to repay their debt.

Today trafficking is organized by criminal gangs generally from Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. One can distinguish three types of trafficking: trafficking for forced labour, trafficking for sexual exploitation, trafficking for human tissues and organs.

Trafficking is the world’s fast growing organized international crime. Around 80% of trafficked people are women and children. Anti-slavery International estimates that worldwide there are around 2.5 million people who have been trafficked and are being subjected to sexual or labour exploitation. However, since the illegal nature of trafficking, it is very difficult to estimate the exact number of victims and the percentage could be much higher.

Who are slaves?

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) there are around 21 million individuals in the world who are subject to slavery. ILO estimate includes various forms of slavery except for trafficking for organs and forced marriage and adoption.

However, the number of today’s slaves rises if we consider the phenomenon from a broader perspective trying to include all forms of slavery-like practices. According to an index of the Australian Walk Free Foundation around 35.8 million people worldwide are enslaved. Approximately two-thirds of world slaves live in just 10 countries. India is the country with the highest number of slaves while Mauritania is the nation with the highest slavery rate per capita. Central and south-east Europe is the region with the highest percentage followed by Africa.

Women and children are the most vulnerable as far as concerns slavery. Womenand girls are the most exploited and build up 55% of all enslaved people while children build up a quarter of total exploited people. Slaves generally belong to the weaker groups of the society, minorities, migrants and socially excluded groups. In fact, exploitation is usually linked to social inequalities such as in the caste system in south Asia, a system rooted in traditional customs and beliefs and in social prejudice. Anti-slavery international has demonstrated that 80-98% of bounded labourers in South Asia are of Dalit origin or belong to indigenous groups.

Who profits?

Slavery is very profitable, especially trafficking. The cost of a slave is much less today than during the eighteenth and nineteenth century mainly due to cheaper transportation costs. According to a 2005 ILO estimate the profits of forced labour amount at around 44 billion dollars and forced labourers lose more than 21 billion dollars each year in unpaid wages and fees.

The UN global initiative to fight trafficking lists human trafficking as the third-largest criminal industry following drugs and weapons illegal commerce. It has been calculated that around 90% of the 21 million slaves estimated by ILO are exploited by individuals and corporations while the remaining 10% are forced labourers for the state, rebel militias or even exploited labourers in prisons during detention.

Toward a new approach

Developed countries have numerous instruments to contrast and reduce global slave trade and the exploitation of human beings. However, slavery does not seem to be a priority for governments and political leaders. This means that there is the capacity to effectively act but what generally lacks is the political will to take action.

Too often, it seems that leaders think that the goal of eliminating slavery has already been accomplished through the achievements and developments in the national and international legal systems. However, such important social and juridical achievements should not only remain in paper documents but should become a tangible reality. Monitoring mechanisms and sanctions are not enough effective and millions of people in the world continue to be denied their fundamental freedoms in a world that claims to be “enlightened” by human rights, equality and freedom.

Addressing the issue of slavery is not only a moral duty. It can also bring several benefits from the economic and political point of view such as the weakening of criminality in the global economy and the reduction of corruption since traffickers very often are supported by corrupt officials.

The developed world has lost several precious opportunities to elaborate effective solutions to the issue. For example, the European Union could have used accession talks to limit the issue of trafficking in human beings from Eastern Europe toward the West of the continent and now, it could still increase his efforts in this direction through new forms of cooperation in the field.

The industrial world continues to follow a short-sighted approach. This situation could undermine the foundations of globalisation and global economy. Thus, there is the need to adopt a new approach setting the fight against slavery among global political priorities and raising a new awareness of the issue.

The costs of slavery are rising in terms of increasing poverty and blocking development and too many are not even aware of what is happening behind the scenes.

Mahmudul Hasan

Mahmudul Hasasn is Lecturer of Law at the University of Development Alternative (UODA), Bangladesh. Comments are welcome to be sent directly at mahmudul.law[at]gmail.com

Top