Modern-day slavery: a flourishing business at $90 for a human life

posted in: Social innovation | 0
Billboard / Mayor McGinn @ Flickr / CC BY 2.0.
Billboard / Mayor McGinn @ Flickr / CC BY 2.0

“You may choose to look the other way.

But you can never say again that you did not know.”

– William Wilberforce
Laura Claus
Laura Claus, PhD student, Cambridge Judge Business School

If you think slavery was abolished 150 years ago, you are wrong. Just like I was a few months ago when I first learned about modern-day slavery as part of my PhD journey.

27 million people, enslaved in countries all over the world. This is a conservative estimate as it only includes people that fall under the conventional definition of slavery: People held against their will, forced to work under the threat of violence, and paid nothing. You can find them in factories, brothels, farms, mines, restaurants, and private homes.

When I first encountered the notion on modern slavery, I couldn’t connect the dots. I certainly was aware of the existence of human trafficking and forced labour. But not in the context of “slavery” and certainly not to this extent. The pictures, videos and stories of children and adults enchained, beaten, and left with the destiny of being “nobodies” stayed with me for a long time. I began to start looking for reasons; reasons that could explain what is considered “our century’s greatest injustice”. I discovered the following trends:

“There are more slaves today than any other time in human history”

Turn on the worldometer and gaze at the rolling counts of births and deaths today. You will note that the final digits of births are turning way faster than those of deaths. This is an indicator that the world’s population is growing rapidly, possibly too rapidly. It is predicated that by 2050, we will exceed 9.5 billion people. And while this may not be worrisome per se, the fact that most births occur in countries in which socio-economic structures do not support such numbers is.

With many children born into poverty, they are vulnerable and easy prey for contemporary slaveholders. Often tricked into slavery by promises of an education or paid work, there are more slaves today than any other time in human history. Once enchained, men and women pass their burden on to their children, grandchildren and so forth. So if, for some reason, one becomes unable to work, the next of kin is forced to step in. In other words, slavery has become a cross-generational business.

The massive growth in human population has contributed to a supply pool of potential candidates that is larger than ever. This is one of the main differences to historical slavery. Modern slaves are not capital items anymore; they have become disposable inputs in economic processes.

“A human life for $90”

The oversupply makes slaves cheap. Very cheap. While in the 1850s, a slave cost the equivalent of $35,000-$40,000, a human life today averages $90. This not only makes them a small investment, it makes them an investment not worth the effort to maintain.

When falling ill or injured, when becoming too old or burdensome, they are dumped or killed. Modern slaves are disposable because they have become readily replaceable.

Absurdly enough, in some cases, you still get transferred an ‘ownership certificate’ upon payment – just like when buying a used car. It is meant to entitle you in writing that you are now in control of a human life.

$90 for a human life secures the owner a profitable income stream over the slave’s lifetime. A minimal investment with the potential for maximal returns.

“Inequality and corruption still trump social security”

Despite the fact that bureaucracy also pervades the most horrifying trades of the modern world, it should be made clear that slavery is illegal everywhere in the world.

The United States banned slave trade in 1808. In the UK, William Wilberforce, the leader of the British anti-slavery campaign, helped pass the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Though, it was not until years later that slavery itself was actually prohibited. Mauritania (West Africa) became the last country to officially abolish slavery in 1981.

Unofficially, slavery still happens everywhere. In fact, it’s a flourishing business, generating over $150 billion in profits for exploiters annually. A third reason contributing to this trend is the corruption and inequality that overshadow systems meant to provide social security.

The hope for an increased quality of life, better educational facilities and employment opportunities has drawn millions of people into urban centres and their peripheries, often to find that their hopes remain just that – hopes. Unable to counteract government corruption, people start swimming for survival without any safety nets or social security. Easy targets for slaveholders looking for quick profits, many become trapped. And because many legal systems allow slavery to go unpunished, they remain trapped.

Why should we care?

Slavery happens in almost every country in the world and Europe and the U.S. are no exceptions. A study conducted at UC Berkeley identified over 90 cities across the U.S. in which evidence of slave labour was found. Just because it is often invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there. As a matter of fact, research suggests slavery to be more alive and entrenched than ever before.

Against all odds, of the $150 billion business for slaveholders today, at least one third of the total – around $50 billion – is made in wealthy, industrialised countries. Diamonds from Africa, steel from Brazil, shrimp from Southeast Asia, carpets from India. Modern slavery is directly connected to today’s global economy. The products reach all sorts of stores, and then land in our homes. This makes us part of the chain.

Let’s look at the good news

Researching modern-day slavery has been an emotional journey for me. At times, it made me feel hopeless and think ‘who am I to contribute to change?’ Until I decided I wanted to do something about it. For me, that meant to participate.

You don’t have to become an activist. Participation can mean many different things, big or small. Maybe you choose to spread the word, educate yourself, or volunteer. Or maybe you choose to look away. This is our freedom. But just like William Wilberforce once said, the one thing that we may never claim again is that we did not know.

Find out more

For more stories, watch the TEDx by Lisa Kristine: Glimpses of Modern Day Slavery.

To find out more, visit or

To keep slavery-tainted goods out of your shopping cart, visit

Image credits

“Billboard” Credit: Photo by Mayor McGinn

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) Licence

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.