Slavery has long been abolished in the eyes of the law, both domestically in most countries and internationally, according to a number of conventions and charters. Nonetheless, slavery persists in 167 countries, affecting as many as 45.8 million people. The Global Slavery Index, a key data source, suggests that over half the slaves (58 percent) live in just five countries: India, China, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. The GSI also makes an illuminating observation: that many of these countries produce goods used in European countries and the US. In short, modern slavery is a thoroughly international affair.
At the international level, the prohibition against slavery is enshrined in Article 4 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to Article 4, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” This anti-slavery principle has been articulated in a number of contexts. The Slavery Convention, first introduced in 1926 and amended in subsequent years, commits the signatories to nothing less than “the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.”
Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – the entity responsible for monitoring slavery since its implementation in 1976 – rearticulates the prohibition on slavery, stating that “slavery and the slave-trade in all their forms shall be prohibited.” It also states the following: “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labor.”
However, there is one exception to the latter clause: those countries that use compulsory labor as punishment for a crime may continue to do so, as long as the labor has been ordered by a “competent court.”
The Trouble with Defining Modern Slavery
This is very similar to the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Thus, when we speak of modern day slavery, we refer to those who are forced to work, whether through violence, coercion or lies, for little or no pay, according to the definition provided by the International Justice Mission (IJM).
At the same time, we generally exclude from our definition of slavery forms of forced labor that exist under certain legal frameworks. In the United States, for instance, a person imprisoned in Angola can be made to work for no money – they can even be threatened with solitary confinement if they fail to do the required labor. At best, in the US, prisoners are making two cents on the hour for menial tasks. Historically, US courts have even held that inmates are not protected against forced labor and receive compensation for work by the “grace of the state,” according to a 1993 GAO report.
Though this sounds a lot like slavery, it is generally not treated as such in the international circuit.
Regardless of the technical definition, we can agree that far too many people exist in conditions of slavery. Thus, it is imperative to consider what might be done to combat such an atrocious state of affairs. We might also wonder what is already being done.
According to Kevin Bales, professor of modern slavery at the University of Nottingham, the cost of ending slavery is quantifiable. It would cost £650 ($873) per person, totaling £26.7 billion ($37.5 billion). That’s significant since the combined spending on anti-slavery initiatives barely reached £95 million ($127 million) in 2014.
In the end, says Bales, the solution to modern slavery will involve a mixture of legal, community and consumer struggles. In addition, it will require far more funding from the richer nations.
Under Our Noses
And as intimated earlier, the struggle against slavery does not just belong in the “peripheral” nations; it also belongs in the richer nations, like the US and the UK. A recent report revealed that domestic workers brought to the UK through a particular visa program have been living in conditions of servitude and subject to all kinds of physical and psychological abuse. Issues like this demand immediate attention from local and national governments.
On the domestic front, we as consumers can also exercise power by refusing to support companies that use slave labor. Sadly, we might find this task much more difficult than it appears and even if we as individuals decide not to support certain companies, it is difficult to imagine this as a sustainable solution. Even so, companies will have to be held accountable, whether by consumers or by the law, for their complicity in slave labor.
The struggle toward that end will certainly take lots of time and effort. In the meantime, we must maintain some modicum of hope that slavery can be abolished once and for all.