By: Monique Villa
How many slaves work for you? Paradoxically, in 2013, the question is still relevant, and the answer, surprising. Depending on where you live, what you buy and what your lifestyle is, you have almost certainly been touched by slavery. Modern-day slavery takes many forms: human trafficking, forced and bonded labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced marriage.
There are currently 29.6 million slaves around the world, more than ever before, about equal to the populations of Australia and Denmark combined. Slavery is a fast-growing industry worth $32 billion a year, equal to the profit of McDonald’s and Wal-Mart combined. It’s a story of debt, fraud and coercion.
An estimated 14,500-17,500 people are trafficked into the US every year. Some enter legally, with a visa and a job. But that job is subcontracted, hiding the harsh reality of abuse and exploitation behind a clean uniform. Those trafficked are forced to repay recruitment fees, travel costs and accommodation bills. They work long hours, seven days a week, without pay, in the impossible attempt to repay a debt that will never be settled. Modern-day slaves are found in unexpected places. Washington, DC, was rocked a few years ago by allegations of human trafficking by diplomats working at embassies and international institutions.
Women Most Affected
There are currently 8,80,000 people engaged in forced labour across the EU. Of them, 58% are women, the majority victims of sexual exploitation — the most lucrative form of slavery. There are believed to be 4,600 slaves in the UK, mostly trafficked from Africa and most of them entering the UK illegally. Slavery is justified by reference to custom, ethnicity and even religion.
In Mauritania, 20% of the population is born into slavery and owned, largely, by the White Moors, one of the country’s three ethnic groups. Only victims can file a complaint, yet the slaves are illiterate and do not know their rights. India, with a population of over 1.2 billion, has more slaves than any other country: 14.7 million. With extreme poverty culturally tolerated, caste and debt bondage are endemic. Sexual exploitation of women and children is widespread. Law enforcement is sporadic and weak. Slavery is a silent crime.
Its victims don’t complain in most instances. In the EU, the number of convictions for human trafficking has dropped by 13% in the last few years; the latest US data shows that only 7,705 prosecutions took place in 2012, though the number of identified victims reached 46,570. Some victims don’t see themselves as such, especially victims of sexual exploitation, who tend to develop a psychological dependence on their abuser. Victims of domestic slavery are often foreigners who cannot leave the house or do not speak the local language. Others are simply afraid to seek help.
Each of us has a role to play in the battle against human trafficking. Individuals who encounter slaves have a moral responsibility to come forward. Businesses must demand real transparency from subcontractors. The State of California recently adopted the innovative approach of fining the hiring firms for violations of national employment laws committed by their subcontractors.
Governments must treat slavery as a crime, not an immigration issue. In the US, a victory has been won as victims of human trafficking now have the right to stay in the country while suing the perpetrators, using US law. Lawyers must work to ensure that all victims of human trafficking have access to free legal representation and restitution for unpaid work. Governments must also end the culture of impunity for the traffickers and the offenders and fight slavery on an international basis. We cannot afford to lose the fight against human trafficking. Slavery should belong to the history books.