When people talk about slavery these days, the term “modern slavery” comes up a lot, including in legislation. I presume this is done to highlight that there a multiple contemporary forms of slavery people frequently fail to recognise as such. The truth is that, even in 2017, poverty, debt and other factors, such as minority status, often mix to create new and inescapable types of dependence, forcing people to enter into working and living arrangements that meet every definition of slavery.
This holds true for Thailand’s shrimp industry, but also for some of the Syrian refugees now working in Turkey’s textile factories. It’s a vicious cycle, and some estimates put the number of modern-day slaves at 45.8 million worldwide. This is by no means a phenomenon limited to the informal and poorly regulated fringes of developing economies. Slavery exists everywhere, and prosperity or functioning democratic institutions have sadly not been sufficient to eliminate conditions of slavery, not even in the UK.
In business, the risk of slavery is real and needs to be managed proactively. In our day and age, no company large or small can claim immunity from these risks, whether they are sourcing textiles, minerals, or cocoa. Whilst globalisation has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, the immense downward pressures of global supply chains often create conditions where slavery thrives. Thankfully, the UK Modern Slavery Act, as well as similar legislation in other countries, (or US states like California), create strong incentives for business to do the right thing.
This Saturday is International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, and under normal circumstances I would have written about my optimisms that the rights mix of transparency, effective legislation and education will hopefully bring an end to all forms of slavery in my lifetime.
But these are not normal times, and after seeing the horrific images of African migrants detained in Libya being literally offered for sale on slave markets, I wonder how much lower people can go in their mistreatment of fellow human beings.
I’m not sure what the solution to the problem is, but I agree with Amnesty International’s experts that the political deals confining refugees and migrants in a place as poorly governed and devastated by conflict as Libya are a huge part of the problem. President Emmanuel Macron has called the situation in Libya a “crime against humanity”, and I am encouraged that African and European leaders have agreed on an ambitious rescue and evacuation plan for those most vulnerable to abuse and slavery.
Ultimately, we will always have to come back to the real causes that force people out of their homes, their communities and their countries. None of those stranded in Libya or elsewhere do this for the sheer thrill of adventure. As long as we don’t address the interconnected issues that really create these mass movements – climate change, natural resource conflicts, poor governance – the suffering will continue.