When most people think about slavery -- if they think about it at all -- they probably assume that it was eliminated during the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Slavery and the global slave trade continue to thrive to this day; in fact, it is likely that more people are being trafficked across borders against their will now than at any point in the past.
This human stain is not just a minor blot on the rich tapestry of international commerce. It is a product of the same political, technological, and economic forces that have fueled globalization. Just as the brutal facts of the Atlantic slave trade ultimately led to a reexamination of U.S. history -- U.S. historiography until the 1960s had been largely celebratory -- so must growing awareness of the modern slave trade spark a recognition of the flaws in our contemporary economic and governmental arrangements. The current system offers too many incentives to criminals and outlaw states to market humans and promises too little in the way of sanctions.
Contemporary slavery typically involves women and children being forced into servitude through violence and deprivation. Disturbingly, the advanced industrial states have failed to take much action to address the issue. The problem is one of political will, not capability, for the rich countries of the world have at their disposal numerous instruments that, if their leaders had the courage to use them, could greatly curtail the global slave trade. Just as the British government (after much prodding by its subjects) once used the Royal Navy to stamp out the problem, today's great powers must bring their economic and military might to bear on this most crucial of undertakings.
Some more facts:
[T]he total number of people estimated to be living in some form of forced servitude around the world (according to the International Labor Organization) [is] 12 million. Whatever the exact number is, it seems almost certain that the modern global slave trade is larger in absolute terms than the Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was.
But this is primarily a problem in developing countries, right? Well, not entirely.
The Justice Department reported in 2006 that about 17,500 persons are trafficked into the [U.S.] annually; in the late 1990s, the CIA put the figure at about 50,000. [Kapstein does not explain whether the numerical difference is due to different methodologies or an improvement in the situation, or both.]
And the U.S. has been relatively aggressive and successful in its efforts to combat the slave trade. If this is what success looks like, I’d hate to see failure. One possible problem: in the U.S., “drug traffickers generally face much stiffer sentences than do those who traffic in humans.”
How does the slave trade work?
Slavers typically recruit poor people in poor countries by promising them good jobs in distant places. A recruiter will then offer a victim a generous loan—at an exorbitant interest rate—to help with travel arrangements, papers, and locating a job in the new community. On arrival, the promised job never materializes, and thus the large debt—up to several thousand dollars—can never be repaid. The victim is then stripped of all travel documents, given a false identity, and forced into a job. He or she—and his or her family—are threatened with disfigurement or death should the slave try to alert the authorities or escape. If they are paid at all, slaves get the bare minimum required for survival.
Roughly 2/3 of slaves are estimated to be used for sex. The trade is lucrative since slave traders can earn on average $10,000 per slave.
It is worth remembering that in the nineteenth century many people argued that slavery would end “naturally” once the practice was no longer economically profitable. But historians now agree that since slavery remained extremely profitable until the day it was aboloished, such an end was unlikely ever to come. If this was true in the past, it is even more true today, since the costs associated with the slave trade have shrunk so dramatically. As long as slavers continue to face only mild penalties from a handful of countries—and none from the rest—they can be expected to continue their work, underminng in the process the legal and ethical foundations of the global economy. If the United States and some of its European partners wish to halt modern slavery, they will have to use their power to do so, just as the Royal Navy halted the Atlantic slave trade on the high seas in the nineteenth century. There is no “natural” end to slavery in sight, and any productive policy must start by recognizing that fact.