FOR SALE: Modern Day Slavery

October 29, 2014

By Elliott Goat

“Sometimes they don’t even know where here is.”

In the build up to the Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Women Conference, on Monday 27 October the Frontline Club hosted a debate on modern day slavery and human trafficking chaired by Prabha Kotiswaran, senior lecturer in Law at King’s College London and advisor to the ILO-DFID Anti-Trafficking Project.

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Annie Kelly, a journalist working on The Guardian’s Modern-day Slavery in Focus Project, laid out some of the key drivers and structural causes behind human trafficking and slavery in the 21st century.

“We are very used to reporting on slavery as individual stories . . . but it is a $150 billion industry affecting, conservatively, 21 million people [ILO estimate] in all forms of modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking,” she said.

It is through these chains of exploitation that people are driven into situations of vulnerability. Through very modern forms: debt bondage and forced labour slavery has become “the bedrock of society, which pervades every corner and every aspect of our lives. Every commodity you use, every component in your phone, every place you travel to will have some link to modern slavery”.

“What has affected me,” Kelly said, “is just how effective a business model modern slavery and trafficking is at the moment, [and how it has evolved] from a high-cost, slow recruitment model to a very lost-cost, fast recruitment business. You would struggle to find another business out there that would give you the same return on investment.”

Kelly compared it to the global arms and drugs trade, explaining that whereas those deliver a one-time use product, with human trafficking you can reuse someone over and over again.

Importantly, she stressed that modern exploitation is not just in the buying and selling of people.

“The visible shackles you had 300 years ago have been replaced by far more subtle and invisible forms, such as economic exploitation. . . . Debt is a huge driver of forced labour, trapping millions of people across the world who feel they are unable to leave the work place.”

Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, marked corruption as “the grease that moves everything” and spoke of the need for banks and NGOs to work together to implement ways of tracking and monitoring financial transactions to combat the internationalisation of the slave trade.

While the abolition of slavery in law was ultimately successful, Klara Skrivankova, from Anti-Slavery International, said that it had failed to solve the root problem – merely driving it underground. “While in most cases it is not the states who are the active organisers of slavery and forced labour . . . its now mainly private actors.”

“It’s a big business”, she said, but one which is able to exploit gaps in policy and corruption.

“In the UK we have laws against trafficking, we have laws against slavery and yet we still see every year thousands becoming victims of exploitation,” Skrivankova said. Yet despite deficiencies in the law the major problem still lies in perception: “People still think slavery is an issue of history.”

It is the daily consumption of goods and services which ensures a market reliant on the victims of modern slavery. “It is not something far away but something that touches our lives everyday.”

While emphasising the need for legislation and for governments to take the lead, Skrivankova also warned that the provisions within, for example, the UK Modern-Day Slavery Bill, failed to adequately protect victims, provide the support they need and would be unlikely to increase prosecutions.

Sam Whyte, head of policy and advocacy at UNICEF UK, was quick to highlight the importance within these draft legal provisions to protect victims and especially children.

What became apparent during the discussion was the enormous gap between the estimated 30 million slaves throughout the world and the 7,000 prosecutions that the US State Department says take place every year against traffickers.

“It is just extraordinary – the gap between problem and response,” said Kotiswaran. On one level is it’s a definitional issue: how these people, be they women who are sex trafficked, migrant domestic workers or children, are met with institutional apathy and states of denial.

Kelly and Villa challenged corporations to take the lead, either through legislative coercion or pressure from consumers, to perform a form of human rights due diligence and investigate supply chain exploitation, corrupt middle men, levels of debt bondage and third-party recruitment:

“Thirty years ago, most companies in the world started to outsource massively to the developing world without any knowledge of who was in the supply chain.”

Yet corporations are beginning to realise that when these supply chains are exposed “it can damage their brand in a matter of seconds”.

While agreeing with the need for corporations to prove that their supply chains are clean, Kelly countered that unless there is someone or some body holding people to account, the money being made by trafficking is just too high for any meaningful change to take place.

For Skrivankova, the biggest block to change is a lack of political will:

“In the UK modern slavery is now a hot political topic. There are political points being scored on modern slavery but actually if you look in reality what is actually being done, how much money is being spend and how much difference a law will make the effect is minimal.”

Whether it is a lack of political will, an unwillingness of consumers to act, the inability or ineffectiveness of mass organisation or a general unawareness of the problem all agreed that the ultimate goal of eradicating slavery was achievable.

“It is an issue of shedding light . . . of informing,” said Villar. “The thing is – you have to open your eyes. Ultimately it is up to the consumer to ask the question. We can task the government to legislate but you get very quick actions by corporations and your can expect very big decisions by the consumers. Just think – 30 million, maybe 40 million is nothing compared to the dimension of humanity. The abolitionists 150 years ago could do it, so why can’t we?”

The Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Women Conference takes place between 17th-19th November.

You can watch and listen to the event here:

, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM