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Man’s Inhumanity to Man: Understanding the Risk Factors of Modern Slavery

Man’s Inhumanity to Man: Understanding the Risk Factors of Modern Slavery

“I had not then learned the measure of “man’s inhumanity to man,” nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain” _ Twelve Years a Slave. Written in 1853, in his memoir, Solomon Northup recounts the suffering he endured after being captured and enslaved.

One might think that slavery is a past event, that outlawing it will prevent any forms of imposed modern-day slavery. However, modern slavery takes many forms. These include, but are not limited to, forced labor, human trafficking, and forced sexual exploitation. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has estimated the global profit generated by exploiting millions of forced labor victims to be at US$150 billion per year. Such an estimate only represents total profits made by the private economy that uses forced labor. State-imposed forced labor, on the other hand, is declining in line with political developments and international pressure to abide by the convention no. 29. Nonetheless, in some states, it still is a major concern where state authorities might force indigenous people into forced labor for economic gains. The risk of increased forced labor is on the rise as factors leading to it are not being addressed properly. Hence, the following will look at such risk factors and recommend a way of moving forward.

Strong correlation between forced/bonded labor and extreme poverty

Poverty is one of the main risk factors that increase the likelihood of households vulnerable to income shocks to become subject to forced labor or debt bondage. Debtors who lack social safety nets tend to give themselves into harsh exploitative slavery-like conditions. Thus, it leads exploiters to take economic advantage of such vulnerability and coerce them into forced labor while locking them in extreme poverty. According to economics professor Sabina Alkire, “Poverty is “multidimensional” and cannot be reduced into lack of money”. Alkire explains the socioeconomic disadvantages that poor people face and that reinforce their poverty status. Lack of education, food insecurity, and poor sanitation are just a few examples. 

The intersection of low levels of education and forced labor is very apparent. It is with no doubt that forced labor is more common under informal sectors that don’t require educational degrees. Such sectors as agriculture, manufacturing, construction, domestic work are rarely protected by employment contracts. Accepting jobs on bad terms with little or no bargaining power paves the way for poverty and absence of long-term economic security. To put it in other words, “The dynamics of adverse incorporation are circular, which means that while poverty shapes people’s vulnerability to exploitation, their exploitation also reinforces their inability to escape poverty.” It is therefore essential to address the deep roots of poverty by looking at preventing discrimination and social and economic exclusion to minimize the risk of falling for slave traffickers. 

Migration: Fleeing Poverty and Facing Forced Labor 

Migration is another risk factor. Migrant workers often seek loans to finance their travel and end up in a difficult financial situation to pay them back. Moreover, they also tend to face exploitative working conditions in the country they migrate to. Few recorded examples are delayed payments, low salaries, terrible living conditions, excessive work, and no social protection. However, it is worth noting that education level, the legal status of migrants, and choice of destination country play a huge role in preventing the risks of falling into forced labor. Furthermore, illegal migrants are highly at risk of facing abuse from recruiters who take advantage of their irregular migrant status in the destination country for their own gain. Thus, such workers are often exposed to forced labor, imprisonment, and extortion. Such inhuman treatment of reducing their human status to mere objects with fixed value is a major problem. 

African migrants fleeing poverty hoping to cross the Mediterranean for better economic opportunities in Europe end up in private prisons and slave markets while on the route through Libya. Engulfed in conflict, Libya, dominated by lawlessness, has become a nightmare for many. Extorting migrants by kidnapping them in return for money has become a slave trade business that offers a lucrative source of income to traffickers and militias there. Moreover, the migrants’ nightmare doesn’t end up after reaching Europe. In several cases, migrants have stated how they were sucked into exploitative systems at destination countries. One example is the Italian system called “caporalato”. The system offers advantages to farmers that seek to outsource their labor needs while avoiding minimum-wage payments, payroll taxes, and work-safety requirements. Yvan Sagnet, a Cameroonian activist who has been living in Italy, stated that the vulnerability status of migrants who don’t know their rights, don’t have their papers, and in need of money offer ground for the system’s exploitation. 

Gender Asymmetry and Vulnerability to Labour Exploitation:

Gender under forced labor is shaped by the economic activity under study. Both men and women might be subject to bonded labor, but the variances are contextual depending on the gendered sectors. Agriculture, domestic work, garment manufacturing, food service, entertainment clubs, and so on are just a few sectors where women tend to find themselves subject to forced labor. Moreover, gender asymmetry in the forms of limiting women’s access to education and barriers to employment entry intensifies the risk of forced labor employment. In the search for better economic opportunities to generate income and care for their family as main breadwinner women take on jobs with harsh conditions. Under the umbrella of gender inequality, women’s work is also valued less than men even when both are performing the same job. In addition to such exploitation and denial of their basic human rights, women are targeted with sexual exploitation and sexual assault. As part of the slave trade exists sexual slavery that has made female migrants more vulnerable to forced labor than men. 

Way moving forward:

The US department of state incorporates the 3Ps paradigm “prosecution, protection and prevention” to end modern slavery. Governments need to ensure effective law enforcement by strengthening national legislation against modern slavery. Moreover, private firms and multinational corporations need to provide a supply chain and product transparency to their goods and services. In line with technology and innovation, the private sector needs to hold themselves up to the standards of corporate accountability by monitoring any incident of exploitation and allowing their workforce, throughout the supply chain, to report any violation. On a more micro level, the movement of migrants and refugees is increasing, which further increases the risk of becoming victims of forced labor. Therefore, it is essential to have a victim-centered approach where NGOs and trade unions protect individuals enslaved by exploitative working conditions. Finally, by spreading information using strategic intervention programs those at risk will become more aware of the dangers of modern-day slavery. 

Focusing on socio-economic root causes is crucial in addressing the problem of forced labor. Poverty, Migration, and gender are risk factors that create vulnerability for others to take advantage of workers for their economic gain. It is thus essential for every one of us to hold him/herself responsible for ending modern-day slavery. From the products that we buy to the way we treat workers, as consumers and as employers, improving social sustainability should be a priority.

This article was authored by Yehya Wehbi, content creator at slavefreetrade