Slavery is perhaps one of the oldest problems facing humanity. Since the ancient times, people have practiced slavery in one form or another. For thousands of years, this system not only denied countless souls their freedom and happiness but also brought pain, misery, and death. It took centuries for society to realize the injustice of slavery and move towards outlawing this practice. But while slavery is universally prohibited today through national laws as well as global instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the reality is still far from the vision of a slave-free world. As this persuasive paper will show, the ghost of slavery remains very much alive and as pernicious as before. Slavery is a specter that lives on in the form of sex trafficking, child labor, and appalling working conditions around the globe.
The history of slavery is a long and dark narrative. Historians believe that slavery emerged as a practice among the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia. Research shows that the Sumerians and Akkadians practiced slavery (King, 1923). It is also known that the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome as well as ancient China and Japan recognized slavery as a legal institution. The Age of Exploration and the subsequent colonization of new lands turned slavery into a global industry. The Atlantic Slave Trade alone displaced millions of Africans and caused much suffering among minorities. Such harrowing accounts can still be read today in works that capture the condition of slavery, examples of which are the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In fact, chattel slavery, which involves the treatment of slaves as personal property, persisted until the mid-19th century, when the American Civil War resulted in the liberation of slaves in the United States. The 20th century ushered in a new era. Finally, slavery is illegal in every country. That slavery is considered illegal in all jurisdictions today, however, does not mean that it no longer exists. If anything, it is robust and thriving.
One of the ways by which slavery continues to exist is through sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is a form of human trafficking for the specific purpose of sexual exploitation. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime identifies three major elements that compose trafficking. The first is any act that aids in the illegal movement of the victim. This may include recruiting, transporting, harboring, or receiving victims. The second is the means by which the victim is trafficked, which may include coercion, deception, or monetary compensation among others. Finally, the third element is the purpose of trafficking, which may include sexual exploitation, debt bondage, or organ removal among others (UNODC, 2020a). The UNODC further states that around 79% of human trafficking is for sexual exploitation (UNODC, 2020b). Determining the scope of sex trafficking is difficult, especially given the covertness of operations and the underreporting of cases. But current estimates assert that as many as 4 million people are currently victims of sex trafficking, 99% of which are women and girls (Kelly, 2019). Extensive research by Siddharth (2010) also revealed sex trafficking to be a multibillion-dollar industry that spans the globe. His research showed supply chains that extend all the way from Southeast Asia, to Europe, and to the Americas, encompassing both developed and developing countries. It is estimated that this barbaric industry generates around $99 billion in profits every year (Kelly, 2019). Victims of sex trafficking endure a variety of indignities and risks including being forced to provide sexual services to hundreds or even thousands of people, physical and emotional abuse, and multiple threats to their health and safety. Given the nature of this industry, it is completely accurate to consider sex trafficking as modern day slavery.
Apart from sex trafficking, another form of modern day slavery is child labor. The International Labor Organization or ILO defines child labor as work that denies children their childhood, deprives them of their dignity, and presents harm to their overall health and development (ILO, n.d.). Note that not all work done by children can be classified as child labor. Helping around the house during their free time, for instance, is does not qualify as child labor and in many cultures is even considered as beneficial; part-time jobs taken on by teenagers that comply with the law is also often treated as acceptable. The crucial element in child labor is if threatens their welfare. The ILO further reports that around 152 million children around the globe are victims of child labor. Of these, 73 million work in dangerous conditions. The rate of child labor is also higher in the developing world: 72.1 million victims are located in Africa; 62.1 million are in the Asia-Pacific region; 1.2 million in the Arab States; 5.5 million in Europe and Central Asia; and 10.7 million in the Americas. Alarmingly, 48% of victims are aged 5 to 11 years old (ILO, n.d.). Some of the most hazardous industries where children are forced to become laborers are mining and forestry. What makes child labor particularly insidious is that it not only affects the present of its victims; its effects in all likelihood will affect their future. Child labor puts children at risk for injury, disease, and malnutrition; it also prevents them from receiving the education essential to a secure future. In many cases, child laborers are denied the chance to free themselves from the industry they work in and will be bound to it for decades, if not their entire lives, thus making this problem yet another incarnation of slavery.
Finally, modern slavery also comes in the form of abject poverty that ties people into servitude under appalling working conditions. Around the world, millions of people work in industries that not only violate worker rights but deny laborers their basic dignity. One well-known example are the sweatshops found in many developing countries engaged in the garment industry. The previous decades have seen the rise of fast fashion, which refers to the rapid production and distribution of cheap low-quality clothing. Massively popular around the world despite its massive contribution to greenhouse gases, the high demand for fast fashion has prompted numerous clothing companies to outsource the manufacture of clothes to developing countries where labor is cheap. The American garment industry, for instance, is worth over $2.4 trillion and employs millions around the world. These factories, however, are notorious for being miserable workplaces. Workers are forced to labor for long hours, paid very low wages, and denied many worker rights such as paid leaves, healthcare, and insurance. Many factories are also deathtraps: overcrowded, poorly ventilated, full of fire traps and hazards, and structurally unsound. The collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013, which claimed over a thousand lives, is one particularly harrowing example of this problem (Stauffer, 2018). The horrific conditions in sweatshops is the reality lived by millions. With no other choice but to accept these conditions, given the lack of legislation that protect their rights and the abject poverty they suffer, these workers are all but slaves to these industries.
When people hear the word slavery, many often conjure images of ancient people bound by shackles and sold in markets like goods. But slavery is not confined to previous eras, nor does a person have to be legally treated as personal property to be a slave. As the discussion shows, society may have already come to prohibit the slavery of the past, but it persists to this day in a staggering scale. Given the deprivations suffered by those who fall victim to sex trafficking, or child labor, or sweatshop a slave, it can be said that their existence amounts to slavery in every sense of the word. Acknowledging this fact is the first step towards liberating the millions trapped in this cycle and bringing those guilty of such crimes to justice.
International Labour Organization. (n.d.). International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). https://www.ilo.org/ipec/lang--en/index.htm
Kelly, C. (2019). 13 sex trafficking statistics that explain the enormity of the global sex trade. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/investigations/2019/07/29/12-trafficking-statistics-enormity-global-sex-trade/1755192001/
King, L. W. (1923). A history of Sumer and Akkad: An account of the early races of Babylonia form prehistoric times to the foundation of the Babylonian monarchy. Chatto & Windus.
Siddharth, K. (2010). Sex trafficking: Inside the business of modern slavery. Columbia University Press.
Stauffer, B. (2018). “Soon there won’t be much to hide”: Transparency in the apparel industry. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/global#
United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs. (2020a). Human trafficking: The crime. https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/crime.html
United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs. (2020b). UNODC report on human trafficking exposes modern form of slavery. https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/global-report-on-trafficking-in-persons.html