Slavery Affects 27 Million Lives Today: Legal Abolition vs. Effective Emancipation

Slavery was one of the grossest violations of human rights and dignity in human history. It permeated, at one time or another, every inch of the globe: from the sugar plantations, and mines of the Americas, to the harems of the Ottoman Empire and the armies of the Sokoto Caliphate, slavery was an incredibly diverse and global institution.  

Reduced to expendable chattel, slaves were divorced from their homelands, sold and bought, and forcibly taken to new sites of exploitation where, under the threat of violence, were made to work for the financial accruement of others. By various emancipatory decrees and proclamations throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, slavery gradually declined and eventually ceased to exist. Or did it?

Many people understand slavery to be part of our collective past and subscribe to its linear “rise and fall” trajectory. When discussed, slavery is predominantly associated with images of enslaved Africans toiling on plantations in the Americas and its demise is seen through the lens of two key pieces of abolitionist legislation: the 1807 ending of the British trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. With such a narrow understanding of slavery and its persistent adaptability, it is hardly surprising that many people are ignorant of the following: slavery is one of the grossest violations of human rights and today permeates every inch of the globe.

There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today; that is more than double the number of enslaved Africans violently transported across the Atlantic Ocean during the entire history of the trade. The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 12.3 million persons worldwide in some form of forced labour. According to the United Nations, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked internationally each year; Siddharth Kara puts the annual number closer to 1.8 million, with close to half (primarily women and girls) specifically trafficked for sexual exploitation. While most nations have anti-human trafficking laws, enforcement is erratic, and, in some countries, non-existent. The U.S. State Department says that 62 countries have failed to convict a trafficker based under the laws enshrined in the Palermo Protocol – the key United Nations declaration that helped to further refine the definition of trafficking and modern slavery internationally. It is estimated that slavery in the 21st century is a 32 billion dollar global industry on par with drug trafficking and illicit arms sales.

Canada is not immune to modern day slavery either:  it is a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking. Trafficking in human beings was only made an indictable offence under the Canadian Criminal Code in 2005, and to date, only 5 traffickers have been convicted.

This reality somberly reminds us that slavery is alive and well in the 21st century and the process of abolition is not complete. If slavery is legally abolished worldwide, but its more abhorrent characteristics – coercion, ownership, zero remuneration – continue to terrorize large numbers of people, on what basis can it be claimed to be terminated? Whether it is sex trafficking, debt bondage, domestic servitude, forced labour, or forced marriage, contemporary forms of slavery continue to menace large groups of people.

At the Alliance Against Modern Slavery we believe that through education and awareness raising campaigns we can better tackle the paucity of knowledge and discourse surrounding modern-day slavery. We confront slavery at the local and international levels, and come to it from a vast array of backgrounds. One of our key initiatives is to further delineate slavery’s historical trajectory from older forms to more contemporary manifestations. By outlining these parallels, transformations, and continuities, there can be a greater understanding of the ways in which systems of exploitation can mutate and adapt to changing societal circumstances.

Contemporary anti-slavery researchers cannot view modern slavery as disconnected from its historical roots; it silences the parallels that can instruct in its eradication. Far from solely being a matter of historical inquiry, however, slavery’s nightmarish reality personally affects the lives of millions of people worldwide. We, therefore, combine research and activism to help complete the goal of abolition, started over two hundred years ago.

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