Modern slavery

By Laura Ombelet

Slavery is not an issue of the past. Despite its abolishment throughout the 19th and 20th century, 21 million people still exist as slaves today. When someone mentions ‘slavery’ we often conjure images in our mind of thousands being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to work on plantations in the southern United States. However slavery’s reach is far more relevant than we might initially assume. 

One of the most prominent forms of modern day slavery is human trafficking. Trafficking is defined as ‘the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of threat or use of force or other forms or coercion, abduction, fraud, deception [and] the abuse of power’. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slaves were often captured in a similar manner. Lovejoy states that slavery was initiated through violence, either as kidnapping, through warfare or as punishment. Deception was also of coercion in the past; slaves were often falsely accused of witchcraft and then detained as criminals. However similarities between slavery in the 18th century and today are not numerous. 

During the transatlantic slave trade, slavery was ‘fundamentally tied to labour’. Although sexuality was significant during the buying and selling of slaves, today the sex trafficking industry features far more prominently in modern day slavery. Masters of slaves were in control of sexual and reproductive capacities and the price of females was higher than men precisely because of this sexual dimension. Nonetheless the production of slaves was highly stressed, especially during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Today sex trafficking is rising; the multibillion dollar industry is rife in both developing and developed countries marking it as one of societies biggest global challenges. 

It is not possible to paint all forms of slavery with the same brush. Not only does slavery vary through time, but also with region, cause and effect.