slavery: a 21st century evil
Slavery: A 21st Century Evil

Slavery: Alive and well in the 21st century

Far from ending with the abolition of slavery, the trade in human beings is thriving more than ever before.

The Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the 16th president of the US, sits at the heart of the National Mall in Washington. Inside the imposing marble building, lined by huge columns, is the even more striking figure of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln sits brooding in his chair, looking out across the stretch of land that leads to Capitol Hill in the distance. There is no triumphalism on his face; instead the statue wears a look of exhaustion and weariness that is perhaps fitting for the man who presided over a nation that tore itself apart in a civil war in which the abolition of slavery was a defining theme.

That was one of the reasons why the great civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, chose the Lincoln Memorial as the setting for his “I have a dream” speech, which not only defined an era but still stands as one of the defining speeches of the 20th century as Black Americans overcame intolerance and racial segregation.

It was fitting that the Lincoln Memorial was also the site of our first day of filming for our new eight-part series looking at modern slavery, because today slavery is very far from banished from our world, or even from the US.

Inconvenient truths

In fact, there are believed to be more slaves in the world today than there were at the height of the transatlantic slave trade between Africa and the colonies in southern and northern America. For 300 years, until its abolition in the 19th century, more than 12 million men, women and children were forcibly taken from Africa to the Americas. But this trade in humans did not end there.

In fact it is now bigger than ever before. Today, the most widely accepted international figure for the number of slaves is 27 million people. Not only that, but, staggeringly, international experts, such as academic and campaigner Kevin Bales, believe evidence reveals that it is cheaper to own a slave today than it was during the 19th century.

Bales says that in the mid-19th century if you went to a place like Alabama in the southern US, you would pay around $1,200 for a slave, which in today’s money is about $40,000 to $50,000. “That price,” he says “has just fallen and fallen and fallen, and today the average price around the planet [for a slave] is about $90.”

The US fought a civil war to end slavery almost 250 years ago. But, despite that, the US government today believes that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the country from overseas and enslaved each year. It is a measure of the scale of the crisis that this can happen in the world’s richest and most powerful nation and a country which is undoubtedly leading the global fight against slavery.

One of the reasons why slavery is now bigger than it has ever been is that it is ingrained in the globalised economy and is part of our everyday lives. It is more than likely that when you buy a piece of clothing, a toy for your child, a pair of shoes for your friend, or just make a call on your smartphone, some part of that product will have been produced by slave labour.

The US recently initiated the largest human trafficking legal case in its history against a US-based Israeli businessman, Mordechai ‘Motty’ Orian. His company, Global Horizons, as well as several Thai and US associates are accused of conspiring to hold 600 Thai workers “in conditions of forced labour”.

When one thinks of modern slavery, it conjures up images of people being smuggled secretly into countries and working in hidden sweatshops. But the reality is that in the globalised world, slaves often fly into their destination countries on the same commercial airlines as tourists and businessmen and have valid passports and visas.

That is what happened to the Thai workers sent to states all over the US to work as farm labourers by Global Horizons. The workers were given temporary US visas, but had to pay illegally high “registration fees” which effectively meant they were trapped in a huge debt. They were promised three years of work to pay that off and make a profit, but the promised work rarely came.

Worlds apart

On my journey across the world to investigate the modern-day slave trade, I witnessed many more direct parallels with the transatlantic slave trade of 300 years ago.

In Pakistan, I saw three generations of one family – a grandfather, his son, his son’s wife and their children – being forced to work as enslaved labour in a field ankle deep in mud from which they were making bricks for the kilns. The illiterate son had signed a loan agreement that he could not read. The terms meant that he could effectively never pay it off and so his entire family, including his children, was forced to work.

As he spoke to me, his ‘owner’ stood no more than 10 yards away. The man had become so desperate to try to pay off the debt that he had sold one of his kidneys to his ‘owner’s’ brother. But even that was not enough.

On the other side of the world and at the opposite scale of wealth and development, one country, and one city in particular, has become synonymous with prostitution: Amsterdam. In 2000, the Dutch government legalised prostitution. Its intention was to stop the trafficking of women into the trade and to ensure that the industry was not driven underground where it would be harder to regulate. But legalisation has had completely the opposite effect.

The opening up of Europe’s borders to countries in the former Soviet bloc, where living standards are much lower than elsewhere in Europe, has seen a huge rise in the trafficking of young women from countries like Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova. Again, just like the Thai workers in the US, they arrive on commercial low cost airlines in their thousands to be exploited horrifically in open sight in a major European city.

I walked around Amsterdam’s famous red-light district with Toos Heemskirk who runs an outreach programme that helps the prostitutes. As we looked into the large shop windows where the barely dressed and heavily made up young women were paraded beneath bright red lights, she told me how abused and absurd the system of legalised prostitution had become. It was one thing if a Dutch woman wanted to self-employ as a prostitute but, she added, “how can a girl from Albania, out of a village find her way to Amsterdam, know where to live, how to rent a window? There must be organised crime behind it”.

Every year the US government produces its Trafficking in Persons Report – a global overview ranking the efforts of nations to stamp out the modern slave trade. Tier 1 countries are those that are considered to be doing the most to combat slavery. And, much to the disappointment of John R Miller, the US’ anti-slavery ‘Czar’ from 2000 to 2007, Holland continues to enjoy Tier 1 status.

Speaking of the legalisation of prostitution in Holland, Miller says: “I think all that’s happened is that the Dutch government has become the Super Pimp.”

He says that arguing that legalising prostitution was a forward-thinking measure, when the evidence showed it was being abused by gangs who were enslaving young women, was akin to the arguments Dutch traders had made during the transatlantic slave trade.

“The Dutch believe that they’re being very sophisticated and regulating. The interesting thing is this is the exact same approach they took back in the 17th century. The Dutch used to boast about how they had the healthiest slave ships, they had the best ventilation, they had the best rations … but slavery went on and on,” Miller says. “All their talk about regulation was an excuse to avoid abolition.”

Modern slavery – a 21st century evil – is alive and thriving across the world, whether in wealthy and powerful nationslike the US and Holland or fragile, conflict and natural disaster stricken states like Pakistan and Haiti. And, unless every country begins to enforce their laws against slavery, it is a practice that will continue to undermine our pledges and aspirations for human progress.