The UN describes modern slavery as the condition of people whose work “is performed involuntarily and under the menace of penalty.” Modern slaves can be forced to work through threats of violence, through withholding of identification, through threats to family members, and also through subtler means like financial pressure or limiting movements. All told according to a recent report by the Walk Free Initiative, in 2018 there were 40.3 million people living in these conditions, mainly women. When Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, as the last stronghold it made slavery illegal throughout the world. One problem is how difficult it is to track down the offenses. It is part of countries with shady human rights certainly, but it is everywhere, including the US. Of these 40 plus million there are at least 16 who are part of the supply chain, meaning the people who work on the things we buy. Even if slave conditions are outlawed within manufacturing, it is difficult to enforce, to make sure products are entirely made by slave free labor. The fashion and the tech industries are two of the worst culprits. With fashion for example, we want cheap clothes, and cheap clothes can only come with cheap labor. Some businesses are onboard, yet because products can have many parts which come from many different countries it is often difficult to know if slave working conditions were involved. Another aspect of the tragedy is that so many of those who are forced to work and/or live under these conditions are not aware they are being exploited. There are no easy answers, but one hope lies in education: Educating people about their rights, and promoting human rights education among vulnerable populations such as those of migrant workers or those likely to be in underage marriages.
If and when we can, let’s contribute to that education.