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How to Help the World’s 45 Million Slaves


By Allison Gauss

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Forty-five million people live in modern day slavery, as estimated by the 2016 Global Slavery Index, a comprehensive report on human trafficking by the Walk Free Foundation. A number that large is hard to even process. For reference—the number of enslaved people worldwide is greater than the number of people living in California, America’s most populous state (38.8 million).

These days, you are more likely to hear this crisis called “human trafficking” or “contemporary slavery,” but the definition of the act is largely the same: depriving people of their freedom for another’s profit. And the profits are big. The International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations, estimates the illegal profits of forced labor (including sexual exploitation) to be $150 billion annually.

The fight against slavery and human trafficking is not over and the more people aware of the issue, the better. Learn what slavery looks like today, where it’s festering, how social impact organizations are combatting it, and how to help.

What Is Contemporary Slavery?

Perhaps one reason human trafficking flies under the radar is because it doesn’t look like the image most people associate with the word “slavery.” Although the era and context of enslavement may vary from the Antebellum South to South Sudan to North Korea, there are commonalities that link these crimes.

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, identifies three elements to the crime of human trafficking.

The Act

Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons

The Means (How it is done)

Threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim

The Purpose (Why it is done)

For the purpose of exploitation, which includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery, or similar practices and the removal of organs.

Simply put, human trafficking happens when one person is under control of another by deception, abduction, or threat of violence. According to Free The Slaves, a nonprofit fighting human trafficking in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, 78 percent of trafficked people are forced into manual labor such as farming and service labor like dish washing and custodial work. Another 22 percent are forced into sex slavery. And 26 percent of enslaved people today are children.

Where Is It?

One of the most important elements of the Global Slavery Index is how it maps human trafficking across 167 countries. Unfortunately, slavery is not an isolated problem.

“It still exists in every country, and is common in some poor countries with oppressive governments or few human-rights protections,” said Marina Koren in “Where the World’s Slaves Live” for The Atlantic. “Slavery is illegal in every country; Mauritania became the last to outlaw it, abolishing the practice in 1981 but only criminalizing it in 2007.”

The Global Slavery Index estimates, however, that 58 percent of enslaved people live in just five countries:

  • India
  • China
  • Pakistan
  • Bangladesh
  • Uzbekistan

Although these countries have the greatest number of people living in slavery, North Korea has the largest percentage of their total population enslaved (4.4 percent). “In North Korea, there is pervasive evidence that government-sanctioned forced labour occurs in an extensive system of prison labour camps while North Korean women are subjected to forced marriage and commercial sexual exploitation in China and other neighbouring states,” said the Global Slavery Index.

But just as America’s history of slavery shapes our society to this day, contemporary slavery also influences our daily life. An estimated 57,700 people live in slavery in the United States. Furthermore, forced labor in other countries makes many of the products we purchase. This is one important reason to be aware of the origins of the goods you purchase. The United States Department of Labor published a list of goods linked to child labor or forced labor.

How Humanitarian Organizations Fight Slavery

Many social impact organizations are working to end modern-day slavery. International agencies, nonprofit organizations, and social enterprises alike contribute to these efforts in several different ways.

Spread Awareness

In addition to promoting Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Day, the UN and other organizations educate governments, law enforcement, and the public on how to recognize human trafficking.

“Many law enforcement officials aren’t even aware that bonded labor, where someone is enslaved to work off a loan, is illegal,” said Free the Slaves. When people know the prevalence and signs of human trafficking, they can start to take action.

Mobilize Governments and Law Enforcement

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) “offers practical help to States, not only helping to draft laws and create comprehensive national anti-trafficking strategies but also assisting with resources to implement them.” The conditions and context of contemporary slavery varies in each part of the world and culture. As a result, the UNODC works with countries on individualized responses. Free the Slaves takes a similarly localized approach to empower whole communities to resist the threat of human trafficking.

Rescue and Support Victims

While prevention and enforcement are vital to ending human trafficking, the social sector also responds to the needs of victims. For example, Liberty in North Korea, rescues and relocates people oppressed in North Korea.

Help End Slavery

Slavery and human trafficking is a worldwide problem that touches people of all ages, races, and genders. And we must all consider how forced labor impacts our lives. No nation is immune from human trafficking and, through the global economy, slavery touches all of us.

Support one or more of the social impact organizations fighting to prevent human trafficking and forced labor.

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