Men, women and children, working extensive days of hard labour in bad conditions without or little pay and no possibility to leave. Impossible as it might be for us to imagine the complete absence of freedom, these practices are not just taking place in distant, shady sweatshops or backstreet brothels in developing countries –human trafficking is very real and happening everywhere, also in the heart the Western world in the US and the EU.

“It ought to concern every person, because it is at the basement of our common humanity. It is of concern to every society, because it tears at our social fabric. It should concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I am talking about the injustice, the outrage of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name; modern slavery.”

A 150 years after its abolishment in the US, president Barack Obama asked for attention for those still living in what he calls ‘slavery’. More commonly known as ‘Human Trafficking’, this entails the exploitation of persons in various forms like sexual, labour and organ trafficking. Besides the heavier load ‘slavery’ carries in the US, there are other reasons to name it this way. ‘Trafficking’ implies movement, people being brought from one place to another, crossing borders. That this needn’t be so is shown in Europe, where 30% of the victims are nationals. Instead of movement, the exploitation is central to human trafficking.

Human trafficking is also something very different than human smuggling. The smuggling of people is a crime against the state of destination whereas with trafficking the humans it concerns are the victim, it is a crime against their freedom. Traffickers often target those in vulnerable positions, like migrants without permits, runaways or those in economic despair. In any case, the victims are lured into the trap of slavery by promises of making good money. In reality, there is only one person making good money: the trafficker.

The price of a slave today is at a record low with an average of only 90$

These traffickers are not just making ‘good money’, they earn shitloads of it. The growing world population and the effects of globalization, have put a whole lot more people in vulnerable positions. They make easy targets for the traffickers, who use deception and (the threat of) violence to enslave them. Because of this major increase in the supply of slaves the price of them is at a record low with an average of only 90$. In comparison, the price of a slave back in the 19th century in today’s money would be around 40.000$. The low price of slaves nowadays has a major implication for the ‘maintenance’ of the slaves; where in the 19th century slaves received treatment that ensured a lifelong relationship, today’s slaves that get sick, injured or old are gotten rid of as soon as they lose their profitability. That’s right, the slaves or our time are worse off than their 19th century foregoers.

Everyone would agree that these slave-like practices are inhumane and should not be happening in our ‘civilized’ times, but its lucrative earnings have put the practice of human trafficking far from being abolished. Human trafficking is considered the second most profitable industry, after drug trafficking. Estimates are stunning, varying between a staggering 20 till 30 million people living in slavery worldwide. It is of course impossible to come with a clear number since the vast majority of cases of slavery remains hidden.

Most of contemporary slavery takes place in Asia and Africa, but our Western world is not free of it either. Think for instance about the prostitutes in the Muur Straat in Groningen, a lot of those women did not expect ending up there when they first agreed to come to the Netherlands. Another example are the migrants without papers that thanks to their ‘illegality’ have little protection against extortion and forced labour. More often though we’ll be unaware of our contribution to slavery, when somewhere in the nowadays long production chains of products we buy a certain part is performed by slaves.

In the Netherlands 1770 reports of human trafficking were made in 2013, yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. The largest number remains hidden and in case of the example mentioned above, it is often very difficult to help these victims for they themselves refuse to be helped. This can be because of fear of arrest due to lacking documents, little understanding of the local language or because their owners convinced them they’ll be worse off in the hands of the authorities.

As Obama’s speech illustrates, human trafficking has received growing attention from both the nongovernmental sector and the authorities. A good development, for it is a shame that these kind of practices still exists in our modern times. Awareness is the first step and if you want to learn more about these practices you can find some interesting websites below. With a growing awareness, companies can be stimulated to take more responsibility for the chain of production of their products. Or at least give transparency about the different subcontracters they use. The different branches of government could, with more people being aware of the various ways in which Human Trafficking takes place in our society, come up with more effective policies to counter this. But in the end we should all be conscious of our own contribution to the problem, namely our participation in an economy that constantly strives for lower prices. I doubt that a T-shirt produced, shipped and sold with a profit for only 5 euro has good working conditions for the people who sew them together. And a box of mushrooms (again, think of the cost of production, transportation and the infrastructure of a supermarket) for only 70 cents seems dubious as well. In the end, if you want to change these kind of problems, the best way is to follow Ghandi’s advice and start with yourself.


For more information: 
–  (Walk Free Foundation)
– (Great fun! You can calculate how many slaves you have working for you)

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