by Amanda Kloer
Yesterday, New York Times columnist and human trafficking activist Nicholas Kristof tweeted a statistic that stopped me cold. According to his new book, Half the Sky, there are currently 800,000 people trafficked each year. At the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, 80,000 people were sold each year. Why are there so many more slaves now that ever before if slavery is supposedly illegal?
There are a number of conditions that have exacerbated and increased human trafficking since slavery was abolished, including globalization, an increased wealth gap, population booms, and international conflicts. But despite all exacerbating or mitigating conditions, there is one central reason there are ten times more slaves today than at the height of the legal trade: today’s slaves are cheaper. Slavery has always been a human rights violation motivated by economics. During the period of legal chattel slavery in the U.S., buying and owning a slave was a huge investment — costing upwards of $30,000 in today’s dollars. Because the human beings enslaved in the 19th century were legally property, slave owners had a stake in preventing them from being stolen, running away, or getting sick and dying. Make no mistake — this care for slaves was not motivated by compassion for most, but rather by the same impulses that motivate someone to take care of an expensive car or computer.
Today’s slaves, on the other hand, can be bought for as little as a few hundred dollars, often. Some traffickers even manage to acquire slaves for free, by forcing, threatening, or tricking them into servitude. For example, a man who brings his cousin to the U.S. from Sierra Leone to work as a domestic servant might invest $1500 in her airfare to the U.S., but will make that cost up easily by the work she is then forced to do. Because the slaves are cheaper, the profit margins are higher for the traffickers, and more criminal entrepreneurs are enticed into the industry, fueling the cycle.
So why are today’s slaves cheaper? And more importantly, is there anything we can do to change the market? Today’s slaves are cheaper for a number of the reasons mentioned above; today, there are more poor and vulnerable people in the world and exploiting them is easier. In economic terms, the demand for slaves has been steady, but the supply has increased and so the price has dropped. But we can change that by ending demand and making human trafficking a much more costly operation than it is right now. One way to do that is by going after traffickers and imposing strict penalties for those who get caught. Another way is to have no tolerance for companies that use slave labor in the manufacture of goods. Even if you’re not a slave or a slave owner or seller, you can affect the market price of slavery by what you buy and what legislation you support.
It’s a little depressing to think that though slavery has been illegal for years, there are now ten times as many slaves as there were when it was legal. But it’s uplifting to know that you can do something about it. We can see the actual end of slavery in our lifetimes, as allusive as it’s been all these years.
Photo credit: Bobster855