Commentary: There Are Still 40 Million Slaves Worldwide. How Can We Free Them?

February 1, 2018, 9:42 PM UTC

From the gulags of North Korea to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria and the brothels of Eastern Europe, an estimated 40.3 million people are enslaved worldwide. Modern slavery spans every continent and plagues major industries, including cotton, coffee, and mining. Despite feeding off of poor and vulnerable populations, the practice generates a staggering $150 billion for traffickers per year—an average of $3,722 per victim.

Governments, NGOs, and multinational corporations have already begun collaborating to help end modern slavery. But more is needed to end this scourge—both through tougher law enforcement and better transparency in business practices.

A new InfoGuide produced by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) offers an in-depth look at the heinous world of modern slavery. Through victim testimonials, along with maps, graphics, and teaching tools, the guide exposes readers to the realities of the modern slave trade and the factors that continue to drive it in the 21st century.

Fueled by poverty, conflict, displacement, and the global population boom, modern slavery can take several harmful forms: sexual exploitation, bonded labor, domestic servitude, or forced marriage. And while men are affected, close to three-quarters of trafficking victims are women and girls. One in four victims is a child. While the practice doesn’t discriminate across racial or ethnic lines, most victims come from impoverished communities, where a lack of viable economic options propels them toward the traffickers’ false and dangerous promises of a better future.

Among the survivors introduced by the CFR InfoGuide is Thanapun, a former fishing boat worker in Thailand. Recruiters in the fishing industry routinely offer false promises of lucrative jobs to migrants, who become trapped in dangerous and abusive jobs. According to Thanapun, workers on the boat were denied freedom and deprived of adequate sleep. Many fell into the sea due to hazardous conditions, yet their deaths were never tracked because they were working illegally.

We also meet Jihyun, an escapee from North Korea who endured forced labor in her home country and forced marriage in China; Mbala, a former child soldier in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Nadia, a Yazidi sex slave held captive by the Islamic State; and Natalie, a victim of sexual exploitation in the U.S.

While victims’ stories span regions and industries, all are tragic. So what can we do to confront this terrible epidemic?

First, we need to increase the chances that criminals are brought to justice. Slavery is not legal in any nation on Earth. Yet perpetrators are rarely prosecuted, let alone convicted. Consequently, some experts propose strategic litigation, which aims to bring about broader systemic change in a legal system through an individual case. More than simply winning a case, strategic litigation seeks to raise awareness about an issue and encourage public debate with the ultimate goal of setting a new precedent. The technique has made a difference in global social justice cases ranging from violence against women in India and Bangladesh, to land rights for indigenous people in Kenya, to civil rights for African Americans in the U.S.

Second, more governments should implement laws mandating that businesses publicly assess their supply chains. These laws could build on existing models, such as the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act of 2015, which requires businesses with annual revenues of more than £36 million to publish yearly statements describing the steps they’ve taken to eliminate slavery from their supply chains.

To further strengthen such legislation, an independent third party could be appointed to conduct audits of companies’ supply chains to ensure that their annual statements are accurate. To incentivize businesses to comply, the legislation should impose monetary and criminal penalties on companies that fail to participate in reporting.

Businesses should also take the lead in instituting ethical sourcing and labor recruitment requirements. Some already have. Target, for example, aims to eliminate forced labor by 2020 by better monitoring its supply chain and using technology to collect real-time data from workers across the supply chain. Likewise, upon discovering that some workers involved in their transshipment (the process of shipping items to an intermediate location before they go to their final destination) systems were slaves, Mars and Nestle committed to eliminating transshipping from their supply chains altogether last year.

Together, governments, businesses, and NGOs need to keep fighting modern slavery and raising awareness about its pervasiveness. The more successful they are, the greater chance its victims around the world will be set free.

Becky Allen is a research associate with the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an adjunct fellow with the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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