Mention the word slavery and you are likely to arouse images of black Africans in chains, transported across the ocean to the Americas during the Transatlantic Slave Trade centuries ago. Or perhaps you will conjure up the legacy of colonialism and imperialism and their damaging, long-lasting effects of carving up countries, races, and castes across the Global South, setting into motion systems of slavery and oppression that persist until today.
The horrors of slavery that took place centuries ago are not easily divorced from today’s crimes that we now call “modern slavery.” While much of public discourse has framed a distinction between “historical slavery” like the Transatlantic Slave Trade and “modern slavery” covering human trafficking, forced or bonded labor, debt bondage, child slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, forced conscription, and forced marriage that exist today, the two are linked by continued systems of oppression, xenophobia, and racism.
Think of it this way: the buying and selling of people of the purpose of exploitation hasn’t stopped, it’s evolved. Victims of modern slavery may not be in chains sold to white slave owners, but people of color, migrant workers, persecuted minorities, and other marginalized groups continued to have their labor and bodies exploited by others, often for the purpose of financial profit, sometimes even sold off in markets and online.
Today, anti-slavery organizations like Freedom United use the umbrella term of “modern slavery” to refer to human trafficking, forced or bonded labor, debt bondage, child slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, forced conscription, and forced marriage – human rights abuses that have been criminalized the world over. This does not mean, however, that we wish to erase the history of slavery or suggest that modern slavery is identical to appalling practices that took place in centuries past. Laws have been passed to abolish slavery, but the systems of discrimination and exploitation that started slavery in the first place haven’t been eradicated.
Furthermore, comprehensive laws against modern slavery that are responsive and sensitive to the needs to victims and survivors remain few and far between, on top of the glaringly low rate of convictions for human trafficking globally. Indeed, there is no criminal law against modern slavery in 94 countries – almost half of United Nations member states – and loopholes in domestic legislation against human trafficking allow criminals to escape punishment.
When we use the term “modern slavery,” what we are arguing is that we see parallels in what we refer to as slavery over time. Victims of modern slavery are treated as ‘property’ exploited for forced labor or sex through threats, intimidation, and sometimes physical and sexual violence by their traffickers. Each of these abuses is – like slavery centuries ago – grounded in taking advantage of those who hold less power than a slave owner or human trafficker. This means marginalized communities around the world, racial and ethnic minorities, women and girls, the poor, migrant workers, persecuted minorities, the disabled, and others deemed less powerful are at risk of being exploited by others. Systemic racism, xenophobia, colorism, and prejudice – which are not new phenomena — all play a role in these injustices. The fact that many societies accept or are indifferent to these forms of discrimination demonstrates that roots drivers of power imbalances – factors that can contribute to modern slavery and other forms of oppression – have yet to be fully reconciled with.