contributor perspectives

The Modern-Day Abolitionist Movement

Anisa Mehdi
Board of Contributors
9 MINS READFeb 8, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
An Afghan child carries shovels at a brick factory in Kabul. The percentage of the world's population in slavery may be at its lowest point in history, but in absolute terms, the global number of enslaved people is higher than it's ever been.

An Afghan child carries shovels at a brick factory in Kabul. The percentage of the world's population in slavery may be at its lowest point in history, but in absolute terms, the global number of enslaved people is higher than it's ever been.

(MAJID SAEEDI/Getty Images)

On an otherwise ordinary flight from Seattle to San Francisco, Alaska Airlines steward Sheila Fedrick noticed a disheveled teenager traveling with a well-dressed older man. She was silent; he was defensive. Fedrick's antenna went up. "She looked like she'd been through pure hell," Fedrick said. She whispered to the teen to look for a note in the plane's restroom. A three-word response was all it took: "I need help." Police were waiting at the airport when they landed. Thanks to Fedrick's training in spotting suspicious circumstances, a case of human trafficking was interrupted.

In the 21st century, slavery continues to be the scourge it has been for the past 4,000 years, modern abolitionists say. In 2016 alone, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 2,000 human traffickers and identified 400 victims.

"Slavery is illegal in every country today but it is still practiced everywhere," Kevin Bales told an audience in the basement of a small Presbyterian church in Millburn, New Jersey, last month. Bales, a professor of contemporary slavery at the University of Nottingham and co-founder of the Free the Slaves NGO, attributes a recent rise in the numbers of slaves worldwide to the expansion of the global economy. While economic growth has offered great benefits to both producer and consumer, it has also spurred a search for cheap labor. In India, for example, thousands of young children are enslaved to make carpets that are sold in international markets. Men, women and children in impoverished communities — places with little or no schooling for youngsters — are particularly vulnerable to traffickers, who lure them in with promises of employment and sweets.

January was Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and a diverse group of people from northern New Jersey had gathered to learn how to act against slavery in our time. "Although the numbers of slaves are larger now than ever before in human history — and there have been slaves throughout the course of human history," Bales told his audience, "the percentage of human beings suffering as slaves is lower than ever before." That's because of the exponential rise in the human population over the past few decades; when compared with the total number of people in the world, the amount of slaves — as many as 46 million human beings, by some estimates — appears smaller. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 22 percent of today's slaves are in the sex industry. Slave labor is also used in manufacturing products, from cars to faucets to frozen shrimp. Some slaves work in mines, while others work in homes. And many work in agriculture, including the cocoa sector.

Global Demand for Cheap Labor

Ivory Coast and Ghana are the world's biggest producers of cocoa: Ivory Coast produced 1.7 million metric tons of cocoa in the 2015-16 growing year, while Ghana produced about 840,000 metric tons. Together with Cameroon and Nigeria, these African nations account for 75 percent of the world's cocoa production. And although the chocolate industry may be worth $100 billion, only 2 percent of the profits come back to the source. So some plantation owners don't pay their workers; they say they can't afford to.

"We have become slaves because of cocoa," a freed Malian slave told filmmakers Brian Woods and Kate Blewett in their 2001 Peabody Award-winning documentary Slavery: A Global Investigation, based on Bales' Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. The man had been trafficked some 500 kilometers (300 miles) from Mali in search of work and was trapped. He could neither get paid nor get home. Ivorian officials intervened to free him and his fellow slaves from the plantation. The Malian Consul in Ivory Coast offered protection and trauma therapy in preparation for their long journey home.

Two hundred years ago, the average price of a slave was $40,000 when adjusted to today's money. Now that figure is under $100. That's why Bales calls slaves "disposable people."

Human trafficking is illegal. Yet Free the Slaves reports that slavery generates $150 billion a year. And while the percentage of humans in slavery may be at an all-time low, the treatment of people in slavery may also be at its nadir. Time was slaves were expensive. They were investments. Two hundred years ago, the average price of a slave was $40,000 when adjusted to today's money. Now that figure is under $100. That's why Bales calls slaves "disposable people." And that's why when a man escapes a cocoa plantation that enslaved him, he may be beaten to death. Stories of enslaved people disappearing are not uncommon.

Bales began his career as a researcher, never expecting, he said, to discover this degree of slavery in modern times. He has assisted in freeing slaves and has observed horrific human rights abuses. "I'm told I suffer PTSD from what I've seen," he said to the group in the Wyoming Presbyterian Church basement, "but it doesn't compare with what freed slaves are suffering." What keeps him going? "Seeing children out of slavery reunite with their parents." And discovering new perils.

A relationship between modern slavery and climate change is emerging. "Deforestation is visible in Brazil, Bangladesh, and India," Bales notes in his 2016 book, Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World. Maps indicate a connection between slave-based labor and the shrinking edges of the Amazon forest, as well as between slave-based labor and the denuding of protected mangrove swamps in Bangladesh that occurs alongside the country's expanding, illegal fishing operations.

In 2005, the ILO and the Ethos Institute launched the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor. The pact "is an innovative tool that was able to penalize companies that used slave labor more efficiently and quickly than action through the national courts," the ILO reported in 2016. "By promoting shared responsibilities, companies voluntarily acknowledged accountability over unacceptable labor practices in their supply chains."

Last December, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved its first draft resolution in history on human trafficking in conflict situations. The goal was to strengthen the United Nations' ability to counter slavery and bolster international responses to this insidious form of organized crime. Outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called on countries to investigate and prosecute cases of human trafficking, noting that the most vulnerable victims were women, children and refugees caught in conflict areas around the globe. But without popular insistence on compliance, slavery is likely to continue with impunity.

A Solution by the People, for the People

Does this mean giving up chocolate, cotton shirts or hand-woven carpets? Not necessarily. In fact, boycotting could do more harm than good, today's abolitionists say. In Ivory Coast, where most of the 1.3 million cocoa plantations are small farms, slave labor is atypical, affecting perhaps just 1 percent of the working population, according to Bales. Those farms may not pay well, working conditions may be dismal, but people are being paid in most cases. Cocoa is Ivory Coast's most important export crop, and about one-third of the world's cocoa comes from the West African country. Boycotting cocoa products could upend the entire Ivorian economy.

"Boycotting is going to hurt many people who are dependent on cocoa that are not engaged in slavery," argues Bob Boneberg, the New Jersey-based abolitionist who invited Bales to Millburn. "I prefer to think of industry as my friend." Industry is better able to police its own supply chains than the general public would be, he points out in his December 2016 blog:

"It is essential that businesses adopt and achieve four goals in order to eradicate slavery from commercial supply chains. These are: (1) The eradication of slavery through the entire depth of the supply chains, (2) The eradication of slavery across the entire breadth of the supply chains, (3) Certainty that slavery has been eradicated across the entire depth and breadth of the supply chains, and (4) Certainty that slavery does not reappear at any time and in any place in the supply chain." 

Though these goals may seem basic, and perhaps even overly simplistic, businesses have not fully embraced their adoption. And that's where public pressure is needed. Along the lines of "certified organic," "no GMOs" and "free trade" standards, abolitionists recommend popular demand for companies' compliance with slave-free standards.

In Nottingham, England, and the Challenging Heights NGO in Ghana, people are working to make their cities "slave-free." This is a coordinated process that includes commitments from residents, elected officials and local businesses to address all aspects of the problem. Communities are asking: Can you ensure that products sold locally are slave-free? Are schools teaching not only the history of slavery, and the nature of modern slavery, but helping to ensure that our children know how to avoid situations in which they might be trafficked? Are our police sensitive to and investigating any possible cases of slavery?

In Indian cities, formerly enslaved sex workers are finding jobs in sewing partnerships that allow them to earn income outside the abusive and stigmatized sex industry. Meanwhile, Brazil has been internationally recognized for its compliance with the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor and the success of its innovative and comprehensive campaign. Mobilizing multiple stakeholders is key to that success. "The Ministry of Labor and Employment was able to bring together actors at the public, private and worker levels in order to coordinate action and to promote social dialogue," reports the ILO.

"As of 2016, around 250 companies which account for 30 per cent of the Brazilian GDP have joined the pact (Ethos Institute, 2016). National banks agreed to discontinue granting business loans to companies on the dirty list … Many signatory companies have altered their contracts to insert clauses of commercial restriction against sourcing from those that make use of slave labor (ILO, 2010). Companies such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Ipiranga have broken contracts with suppliers that do not adhere to the law."

Fedrick's wary eye and thoughtful response may have spared one young woman a terrible fate. Bales and other modern abolitionists also intervene to free slaves, as may U.S. immigration services and law enforcement agencies around the world. But the most effective approach, urge adversaries of slavery, is for communities to partner with industries and governments to create a systemic solution to end slavery, once and for all.

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