In spite of the widely held belief that international slavery has decreased since the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, slavery has a wider market and affects a larger number of victims than ever before in history.
The people who are the greatest target of modern slavery are the world’s poorest populations, who often lack access to daily necessities, technology and adequate representation. Modern slavery comes in many forms, including forced labor, marriage, prostitution, organ removal, child soldiers, human trafficking, online cybersex or pedophilia. One-quarter of the slave population are children, while almost three-quarters tend to be young women or girls. According to the World Bank, more than 1.9 billion people—26.2 percent of the world’s population — lives on less than $3.20 per day. Another 3.4 billion people, about 46 percent of the world’s population, survive on less than $5.50 a day.
In contrast with the victims’ poverty, human trafficking alone generates vast wealth for the perpetrators — around 150 billion dollars a year, 99 billion dollars of which coming from commercial sexual exploitation. With such a huge market, corrupt government officials and law enforcement authorities benefit from preying on the poor, who often lack protection or representation and may have been threatened or directly kidnapped and forced into slavery.
According to The Conversation, in almost half of the world’s countries, there is no criminal law penalizing either slavery or the slave trade. The enslavement of another human being is also not grounds for prosecution or punishment in a criminal court in 94 countries.
Legislation banning slavery is up to each country’s government, which can encourage the growth of human exploitation and corruption that is only exacerbated by the fact that slaves are more numerous, cheap and profitable than ever.
In a 2001 interview with Kevin Bales, the co-founder and previous president of Free the Slaves (the US sister organization of Anti-Slavery International — the world’s oldest human rights organization), he argued that the decreased price on human lives “has made modern slavery even worse than that of [the] Atlantic Slave Trade:
“In the United States before the Civil War, the average slave cost the equivalent of about fifty thousand dollars,” Bales said in the interview. “I’m not sure what the average price of a slave is today, but it can’t be more than fifty or sixty dollars… And while the price of slaves has gone down, the return on the slaveholder’s investment has skyrocketed. In the antebellum South, slaves brought an average return of about 5 percent. Now bonded agricultural laborers in India generate more than a 50 percent profit per year for their slaveholders, and a return of 800 percent is not at all uncommon for holders of sex slaves.”
Continuing this comparison between slavery of the past and present, according to Brittanica, between 10 to 12 million African American slaves were transported to the U.S. between the 16th to 19th Centuries; meanwhile, Forbes estimates that there are around 40 million people in modern slavery.
Despite the prevalence of modern slavery, it does not dominate political or social conversations. A large reason for this silencing may be that, while there are more slaves than ever before, they consist of a smaller proportion of the human race due to increased population numbers — which make it easier for wealthy countries like the U.S. and Canada to forget about people beyond their populations.
But unlike the past, with the rise of technology, students can increasingly both be informed and inform others of important issues in other countries. This proliferation of technology has enabled many marginalized groups to speak out against injustice, but it has also inversely led to the underrepresentation of those who do not have access to the internet or proper education. Unlike the slavery of past centuries, raising awareness of modern slavery is a task that people of all ages can take on. It is not limited to one’s community, as it has the potential to reach lives around the world.