Are we still served by slaves in the 21st century?

by Cathy Zimmerman
Saturday, 17 October 2015 09:17 GMT

Cambodian fishermen rescued from Thai fishing boats have breakfast at a building in the Chroy Changva district of Phnom Penh June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is time to find safe ways for people to to migrate to put an end to modern day slavery

“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”, wrote President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Anti-Slavery Day on Sunday recognises this simple truth.

Moreover, this annual recognition reminds us to ask if we live amid such extreme exploitation that it warrants such labels as “modern slavery” and “human trafficking”? Can it be true that, centuries after Lincoln’s assertion, practices still exist in nearly every corner of the globe that treat men, women and children as tradeable, readily exploitable commodities?

Sadly, yes, in the 21st century, slavery still exists and, worse yet, it cannot only be blamed on purveyors and purchasers of sex-trafficking. These extreme forms of exploitation occur for the benefit of many of us, even if inadvertently, in the clothing we wear, the toys we buy for our children and the seafood on our plates.

Many of our goods and services are, indeed, provided by extraordinarily exploited labourers. For example, a recent multi-country study of human trafficking in the Mekong region of Southeast Asia conducted by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the International Organization for Migration found that trafficking survivors had been exploited in over 15 different sectors.

They included men and boys trafficked for deep sea fishing; women and girls trafficked as brides, domestic workers and sex workers; children trafficked for street-begging and car cleaning and people trafficked for work in farming, factories, food processing, construction and other commonly under-regulated sectors.

Over the past decade, there has been growing international acknowledgement of the slave-like employment arrangements upon which portions of the global economy—and consumers—depend. That is, current industrial-level enslavement cannot be blamed solely on a few unscrupulous actors or organized criminals but is instead, attributable to global supply chains and consumer quests for ever cheaper products.

These create the space for the usurious employment of millions of aspiring labour migrants from some of the world’s poorest areas. And, the price of our desire for ‘fast fashion’ and sea-food flavoured cat-food for our kittens? This cost is not paid primarily by consumers, but by the Bangladeshi women and girls toiling over textiles, Burmese sea-slaves held captive on boats that don’t dock for years at time, and millions of unseen other workers.

International organisations and some governments are increasingly joining rights activists to call for an end to these seemingly ‘institutionalised’ forms of slavery. They recognize that it is not sufficient to punish the perpetrators of these egregious acts of human trafficking after the fact.

There is an emerging sense that larger systems have to shift in order to help people earn a decent living by working in safe conditions of employment.

For example, the UK’s Department for International Development has recently invested in the Work in Freedom programme, led by the International Labour Organization in South Asia and the Middle East, to try to tackle multiple underlying and direct causes of human trafficking of women and girls for domestic work and textile manufacturing.

Working simultaneously on various fronts, this programme aims to strengthen policies on workers’ rights, reduce extortionate labour recruitment practices that create debt bondage and foster community-based action by local groups to help aspiring migrants manoeuvre through a terribly fraught system.

However, making the necessary changes to a system that operates so well on exploited labour will not be quick or easy, which is why there has been growing investment in campaigns to raise awareness about human trafficking. These campaigns have tried to warn people about the possibility of being trafficked if they choose to migrate for work.

However, from our research and the experience of many in the field, these dire warnings often appear to go unheeded. This is not because people are naïve or obstinate. It is because their general reality tells them a different story. Millions of workers around the world migrate safely.

Labour migration has existed for centuries. Many migrant workers return to villages and towns with success stories. Fewer admit to failures. And, more importantly, many do not have a sensible option for not migrating for work.

As climate change continues to cause failing crops and decreasing farmland, and people are displaced and lose employment options as a result of long-term humanitarian crises, many, many people choose to migrate from necessity. These individuals might best be viewed as aspiring and resourceful, even amid foreboding poster images and ominous announcements.

Therefore, instead of, or along with, messages about the risks of human trafficking, and while we work to repair a truly flawed consumer system, it is time to start helping people find safe ways to migrate. Prospective labour migrants need urgent information about ways to avoid exploitative recruitment arrangements and extortionate labour contracts and to stay out of prison-like working conditions.

Some of this advice will come from other successful returning migrants. Employers have a big role to play in creating good working conditions and sharing these job opportunities to the large pool of hard-working prospective labour migrants. Many gains can be made through labour rights groups who empower workers to assert their rights.

Other guidance will come from investments like those the UK government has made in research to develop a stronger evidence-base about the ways migrants can navigate systems that are so rigged against them.

And on this Anti-slavery Day, what can consumers do to recognise those enslaved on their behalf? If you want to give some thought to the numbers of people who are exploited to maintain your household, you might want to check

Around the world, there is an enormous population of hard-working and talented people who are seeking jobs that will pay them a fair wage so they can house and feed their families. Will they continue to serve us all in ways that are so wrong?

Dr Cathy Zimmerman leads research on human trafficking with the Gender Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. She conducted some of the first research on human trafficking and health, co-authored the World Health Organization’s Ethical and Safety Guidelines for Interviewing Trafficked Women and the handbook, Caring for Trafficked Persons: Guidance for Healthcare Providers. She leads research on human trafficking in the UK, Europe, Southeast and South Asia, Central Asia and South America.