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How Modern Slavery Survives Across the World

The world is watching Qatar this month, as athletes from across the globe compete in the FIFA World Cup. For many, however, the focus has been not on the competitors themselves, but on the workers who built the competition’s stadiums.

Many critics have gone as far as to say the treatment of the migrant workers who built Qatar’s stadiums is an example of modern slavery – a persistent human rights crisis that affects people across the world.

And as this year’s World Cup winds down, human rights groups are hoping the spotlight on modern slavery it provided does not dim with it.

According to the United Nations, modern slavery refers to “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.” This encompasses an array of situations, including – in some instances – the workers in Qatar, people who are trafficked for sex and people who are held in debt bondage, among other scenarios. The International Labor Organization estimates that in 2021 there were 50 million people enslaved. Of those 50 million, more than 3 million are children, many of whom are victims of sexual exploitation.

[ READ: The Arab Region’s Foreign Labor Problem ]
Peter Williams is an expert on modern slavery and the global vice president of program excellence at the International Justice Mission, a U.S.-based organization that protects people in poverty from violence, including modern slavery. He spoke to U.S. News about modern slavery. The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.

What do we mean when we talk about “modern slavery”? Which groups are affected by this issue?

Slavery takes many different forms in the modern world. You can imagine a family, for instance – children, parents, and even sometimes grandparents, working in a brick factory, to repay a debt and essentially being forced to remain there.

You could imagine a young boy on a fishing boat on a lake in West Africa, who’d been sold by his parents to a trafficker, essentially. And that boy being forced to work long hours in a highly hazardous industry without pay. That’s ubiquitous in certain parts of the world. You could imagine a child in a red light district, tragically being raped for profit in the commercial sex industry. There are forms of trafficking that go online, where a child is abused online, for profit, and somebody else is profiting from that.

I tend to think of modern slavery as usually having three common components. The first is that somebody’s lost their freedom. Then No. 2 is that there’s exploitation happening – somebody’s making a profit from that person whose freedom has been taken away. And then the third thing is that that’s all brought about through coercion. There’s some use of violence or some other kind of deception or coercion.
In what ways is slavery in the 21st century different from the past?

The first thing is that it’s illegal now. It didn’t used to be. Slavery was abolished in almost all the countries of the world and that actually presents a significant opportunity. If you think about the history of humanity, we now have this opportunity where it’s been outlawed everywhere. But as slavery persists, it’s more hidden because it’s illegal – sometimes hard to uproot and find because it’s just not out in the open as much.

Another thing that’s striking is that it’s now cheaper to buy somebody and to exploit them in slavery than it ever has been. In the past, the right of property ownership was exercised usually by one person over another, and the terrible abuse and dehumanizing of a person in chattel slavery occurred over their entire lifetime. It is a great good that this kind of slavery has virtually disappeared from the world, though of course, our societies are still dealing with the harm of that practice that reverberates today.

“When you drink your coffee, you have your chocolate, when you’re wearing your clothes, when you’re watching the FIFA World Cup – all of that is connected to slavery.”

Today, modern slavery looks different. It’s now cheaper to buy somebody and to exploit them in modern slavery than it ever has been. It’s a matter of several hundred dollars, essentially, to purchase someone’s work and their humanity. And it’s much more profitable than it’s ever been at any point in history.

It’s more profitable now because human beings are so cheap to purchase, and essentially they’re very disposable. And it’s terrible to talk about human beings in this way, but that’s what slavery does, it converts people to commodities.

Now these days a person is essentially a disposable tool of industry, so an abuser often cycles through people very quickly – it’s a short-term, use-and-discard kind of slavery, as opposed to the lifetime of owning a person as property as was the case when chattel slavery was still legal.

That means though that, just like in the past, the treatment of people can be incredibly abusive and callous because today it’s just a matter of a couple of hundred dollars to replace somebody who has been worn out or even been worn to death in their slavery situation. The modern phenomenon of highly disposable products is true of the illicit trade in people as well. Slave owners view people as highly disposable.

If slavery is illegal in most parts of the world how does it continue to occur?

The key thing is the lack of consistent enforcement of the laws that exist. Slavery will exist where there are imbalances of power that occur in societies. People can exploit that imbalance of power and exploit human beings with little to no risk of that law being enforced against them. Slavery is a crime that’s particularly sensitive to the idea of deterrence because someone’s making a choice about profit.

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