A new report from the International Labor Organization has found that the proceeds from ‘forced labor’ amount to as much as $150 billion dollars per year worldwide. To give you an idea of just how much money that is, if the people benefiting from this forced labor were to form their own country, they would be the 56th richest nation on earth, slightly above Iraq. Most of this money comes from various forms of forced sex work, including street prostitutes in developing countries and trafficked women in the rich world. The rest of it comes from other kinds of forced work, including domestic servants and men forced to work in mines and other operations.
We need to start here by removing the euphemism of forced labor and calling this phenomenon what it is – modern day slavery. If you are being made to work in a particular job, because of fear, violence, manipulation or for any other reason, it is slavery – something which we were supposed to have put an end to a century and a half ago. But as well as using that ugly word, we also need to face another unpalatable truth, something which we don’t like to accept because it implicates us into this system of slavery.
That unpalatable truth is that modern slavery does not just exist because some people are ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. Yes, many of the people making money from people trafficking, forced sex work, and other types of slavery are indeed awful people who should be punished for their actions. But the global economy, which we all contribute to, is also to blame for this epidemic of forced work.
Decades of economic and foreign policy by western countries have been dedicated to enriching the west at the cost of the east, and to enriching elites at the cost of the poor and oppressed. We in the west have supported dictators in countries like DR Congo, Chile, and Indonesia, and denounced their opponents as ‘communists’ or ‘terrorists’ because it suits our own agenda. Those dictators have become rich and fat, while their people become ever more poor and desperate. We in the west have encouraged countries to slash spending on services for the poor in order to pay back loans to our banks. We in the west have supported agricultural policies that force the developing world into a reliance on volatile cash crops that pay barely enough to live on. And the list could go on for much longer – the point is, western policy has in many cases contributed to the impoverishment of people in the rest of the world.
People who are poor look for ways to escape, and desperation can often force us into situations that may normally seem unwise. In their attempts to make a better life for themselves, many of the world’s poorest people put their trust in others who turn out to be exploitative – employers who take their passports, go-betweens who help them cross a border but then hand them over to the sex traffickers, and so on. Such acts are the symptoms of economic desperation, and it is these economics that are the real root cause that needs to be addressed.
In the wake of this report we will no doubt see a number of calls to address the symptom rather than the cause. But if we are to truly have any chance of ending modern slavery, we need to start rethinking concepts of economic justice and calling for a long overdue global redistribution of wealth, to ensure that all humans have the chance to fulfil their potential and achieve happiness in their lives, rather than simply becoming another statistic in another depressing report.
Article prepared by John Wish