Although many believe slavery has been eradicated, Jolene Smith, Executive Director of Free the Slaves, a non-profit human rights group, says it remains alive and well. ”Slavery today is the worst its ever been in human history because of the sheer number of people in slavery. We do find that many people hesitate to use the term slavery. To some extent, it is embarrassing that it is going on today.”
Mrs. Smith says global economic development during the last half century has fostered a resurgence of slavery. Economic opportunities attract many people to urban centers around the world, making millions vulnerable to exploitation. Also, the ease and speed of transportation has increased cross-border human trafficking.
The United Nations' International Labor Organization says more than 12 million people are enslaved in the world. Other estimates are higher. For example, Free the Slaves says at least 27 million people are held in bondage. But given the illegal nature of forced labor and the difficulty of verifying cases in populous countries like China and India, analysts say the total number will never be known.
Most slaves live in Asia, while many are in sub-Sahara Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The vast majority of victims are women and children.
Scholars say slavery is a long-standing tradition in parts of South Asia and West Africa where some children grow up bound to the same jobs as their parents with little chance of release. According to David Ould, Deputy Director of Anti-Slavery International, the oldest human rights group in the world, many slaves do not realize their situation could be different. “I think the acceptance of the system is very much inherited, so that if you are born and brought up in very traditional areas were your father, mother, grandmother, uncle were all bonded laborers, then you are willing to accept that system and won't be inclined to challenge it until someone comes from the outside to tell you that it is possible to challenge it.”
Most of the world's slaves are forced to work in agriculture, mining, and prostitution. Many analysts say the demand for cheap labor is driving much of the slave trade. Derek Ellerman is co-founder of the Polaris Project -- a grassroots organization here in Washington that aims to raise awareness of slavery. He says some multinational companies subcontract to slave labor in developing nations. “Companies choose to meet demand through using the cheapest possible labor they can get, which is modern-day slavery. Most consumers only look at one bottom line - how cheap the products are that they are getting. They don't stop to question how these shoes, this shirt or this soccer ball are produced.”
Jolene Smith of Free the Slaves encourages more consumers to demand that goods, especially those at very low prices, are free of slave labor. “All of us as consumers are implicated in buying into slavery today. We can guarantee that every one of us has within our homes at least one good that is made with slave labor.”
The International Labor Organization report estimates that some two-and-a-half million people are trafficked from one country to another and that these forced laborers generate more than 30 billion dollars a year in illicit profits, half of it in industrialized countries.
Phillip Linderman, who monitors human trafficking for the Organization of American States, notes it's a problem even in the United States where, he says, more than 14-thousand forced laborers are brought into the country each year. “In the United States in the past few years, particularly after the passage of the Traffic and Assistance Act in 2000, the country has become much more aware of this problem. There have been a number of prosecutions by the federal government that has been fairly aggressive in enforcing the law.”
Phillip Linderman says the common thread that runs through all forced labor -- whether a person remains in his or her village or is sent to another continent -- is that people are exploited and abused. The good news, many analysts say, is that more governments are expanding laws against slavery. But they add that it will take genuine political will and greater awareness to enforce them and ultimately close the chapter on modern slavery.