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Modern slavery: A harsh and shocking reality

Published : Thursday, 13 September, 2018 at 12:00 AM  Count : 199
Hiba Ahmed

A lot of us have watched movies and read books which have portrayed the dire straits of the enslaved blacks for centuries under colonialists. However, a large portion of the general population is still unaware of modern slaves, which are rampant in many countries right now. Contemporary slavery, also known as modern slavery or neo-slavery, refers to institutional slavery that continues to exist in present day society. Shockingly enough, estimates of the number of slaves today range from around 21 million to 70 million.

The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons agency of the United States Department of State says that "'modern slavery', 'trafficking in persons', and 'human trafficking' have been used as umbrella terms for the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion". Besides these, a number of different terms are used in the US federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, including "involuntary servitude", "slavery" or "practices similar to slavery", "debt bondage", and "forced labor".

According to American professor Kevin Bales, co-founder and former president of Free the Slaves, modern slavery occurs "when a person is under control of another person, who applies violence and force to maintain that control, and the goal of that control is exploitation". According to this definition, research from the Walk Free Foundation based on its Global Slavery Index 2016 estimated that there were about 70 million slaves around the world in 2016, with 58 per cent of them living in the top five countries -- India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. Yes, modern slavery is present and thriving in our country itself!

Of these 45.8 million, it is estimated that around 10 million of these contemporary slaves are children. Bales warned that, because slavery is officially abolished everywhere, the practice is illegal, and thus more hidden from the public and authorities. This makes it impossible to obtain exact figures from primary sources. The best that can be done is estimate based on secondary sources, such as UN investigations, newspaper articles, government reports, and figures from NGOs. The causes of slavery are many. In slave labor, the slave-owner only needs to pay for sustenance and enforcement. This is sometimes lower than the wage-cost of free laborers, as free workers earn more than sustenance; in these cases, slaves have a positive price. When the cost of sustenance and enforcement exceeds the wage rate, slave-owning would no longer be profitable, and owners would simply release their slaves. Slaves are thus a more attractive investment in high-wage environments, and environments where enforcement is cheap, and less attractive in environments where the wage-rate is low, and enforcement is expensive.

Free workers also earn compensating differentials, whereby they are paid more for doing unpleasant work. Neither sustenance nor enforcement costs rise with the unpleasantness of the work, however, so slaves' costs do not rise by the same amount. As such, slaves are more attractive for unpleasant work, and less for pleasant work. Because the unpleasantness of the work is not internalized, being borne by the slave rather than the owner, it is a negative externality and leads to over-use of slaves in these situations. Slaves can also be forced to do illegal work such as pick pocketing, or cannabis production.

Modern slavery can be quite profitable and corrupt governments tacitly allow it, despite it being outlawed by international treaties such as Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery and local laws. Total annual revenues of traffickers were estimated in 2004 to range from US USD 5 billion to US USD 9 billion, though profits are substantially lower. American slaves in 1809 were sold for around the equivalent of USD 40,000 in today's money. Today, a slave can be bought for USD 90 (around 7500 Bangladeshi Taka). The conscription of child soldiers by some governments is often viewed as a form of government-endorsed slavery.

Modern slavery is often seen as a by-product of poverty. Countries that lack education, economic freedom, the rule of law, and have poor societal structure can create an environment that fosters the acceptance and propagation of slavery. Professor Remington Crawford III of the University of Toronto said: "Slavery is something that's with us always. We need to keep it in view and think about it when we buy our clothes, to question where they are sourced. Governments and CEOs need to think more carefully about what they are doing and what they are inadvertently supporting."

There are many forms of modern slavery. It could be forced labor, which is any work or services which people are forced to do against their will under the threat of some form of punishment. Again, debt bondage or bonded labor is the world's most widespread form of slavery, when people borrow money they cannot repay and are required to work to pay off the debt, then losing control over the conditions of both their employment and the debt. Human trafficking involves transporting, recruiting or harboring people for the purpose of exploitation, using violence, threats or coercion.

Descent-based slavery is where people are born into slavery because their ancestors were captured and enslaved; they remain in slavery by descent. The worst form is perhaps child slavery - many people often confuse child slavery with child labor, but it is much worse. Whilst child labor is harmful for children and hinders their education and development, child slavery occurs when a child is exploited for someone else's gain. It can include child trafficking, child soldiers, child marriage and child domestic slavery.

Globalization has brought tangible benefits and positive changes to many across the world. Technological advances have connected the world unlike any other time in history. Consumers are also more socially aware. And still, slavery continues to persist. Modern slavery is hidden within the depths of criminal networks, trafficking people for exploitation, and occurs where legitimate industries meet informal economies. Modern slavery comes at a serious cost. Modern slavery suppresses the economy and reduces sustainable development.

There are some who say the problem is too hard, or that there are more pressing issues, or that it is for governments to do more, or that we can never end modern slavery. However, many others believe that these are morally indefensible responses. We can, and we must do everything in our power to end modern slavery. No one person or organization can end modern slavery. It is a complex web of criminal behavior, where sometimes those committing the crimes have turned to cruel and desperate measures to survive themselves. It's time now to act and to work together to end modern slavery within this generation.

Hiba Ahmed is a social activist

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