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Modern day slavery can be detected in our everyday lives, from the supermarkets we shop at to the clothes that we wear. Many believe that slavery is a phenomenon that can only be read about in the history textbooks. Yet today, there are over forty million people that are enslaved or subject to forced labour. This number is at its highest in history, making up more than three times the transatlantic slave trade.
Slavery is not simply confined to countries like Libya, where African refugees are being sold at auctions for $400. Modern day slavery also permeates Western supply chains.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, major online fashion retailers like Boohoo have been exposed for operating illegal sweatshops in Leicester, where staff were paid only £3.50 an hour. At a time when awareness of human rights is at its strongest, how can people still be suffering conditions we associate with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
Types of Slavery
Slavery can be hard to detect, taking the form of forced labour, sex work or forced marriage. This primarily affects women and children, as women account for 70% forced marriages and children make up 1 in 4 victims of slavery. Those that are most vulnerable include migrants, deceived by the promise of jobs abroad and young women trafficked for sexual exploitation.
The Importance of Profit
How can this still be happening, let alone increasing? Expert Siddharth Kara calculates that modern day slave traders can earn up to thirty times more than their transatlantic forebears, with gangs globally making $150 billion a year. This makes slave labour the most profitable business among the Western world, larger than both the oil and banking industries.
Those in the UK coming from outside the EU are four times less likely to be recognised as victims of trafficking, making it more probable that they will be deported instead of protected. According to Anti-Slavery International, the criminal justice system encourages slavery by judging potential victims by their immigration status, instead of seeing them as victims of crime. This is deeply troubling, as the lack of victim recognition has meant that a third of victims are re-trafficked in the future. Countries must begin to look beyond borders if they are to curb the spread of international slavery permeating the corners of everyday businesses.
The International Response
The UK has taken important steps to tackle modern day slavery, promising £5.5 million to support commonwealth countries confronting the issue. Despite this, the international response among Asian-pacific countries remains weak. Only 38 countries have criminalised the practice of forced marriage, leading 15.4 million girls across the world to become wives and mothers at an early age. Whilst it is difficult to legislate on cultural practices around the world, the rest of the countries have agreed to empower girls under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5.
What Can We Do?
We often go about our daily lives without questioning our surroundings, unless there are obvious clues that disrupt our habitual behaviour. In the UK police forces and local authorities have to notify the government of cases of slavery, with NGOs and others encouraged to make voluntary notifications . However, any of us can look for signs of forced labour.
Further, despite mass outcry against Boohoo’s sweatshops operating across the UK, Boohoo’s sales soared massively by 40% during 2020. We must ensure that we take action and put our money where our morals are. It is within our power to ask questions in our daily lives like ‘who made my clothes?’ or ‘how transparent is the companies supply chain?’ in order to ensure that we hold companies to the highest standards.
We are unknowingly contributing to the issue of modern-day slavery when we buy products from companies whose supply chains are contaminated by forced labour. Consumers, whether individually or banding together, can influence how a business makes its profits. By boycotting businesses and choosing not to invest in brands that use forced labour, consumers have the power to make a real change in the lives of modern-day slaves.
It is our responsibility to keep an eye out for others, understanding the power of our purchases to either perpetuate the cycle of modern slavery or, to eradicate it completely.