The relevance of historical slavery today -

I. Connecting the dots between historical slavery and modern slavery

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.

II. Abolition and approaches to ending slavery today

While we see parallels between historical slavery and modern slavery, one of their key differences is in the legal approaches to tackling them.

Historical slavery, such as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, is largely believed to have ended by formally abolishing slavery by law. But injustices and racism that slavery willingly exploited and exacerbated were not solved overnight by a change in the law, and their long-lasting effects continue to impact how we navigate solutions to modern slavery.


Academic Joel Quirk explains:

When slavery was legal, there was always a simple, singular solution: formal abolition. It was not always clear how this solution would be realized, but there was little doubt that it needed to be done. There was also a widespread belief that this would be definitive, resulting in the end of slavery. This was undoubtedly an effective formula, but it provides limited guidance when it comes to contemporary issues, where there is no longer one clear, readily identifiable solution, but many overlapping strategies, which are typically geared towards harm minimization, rather than definitive emancipation…


As a top-down change in legal status, formal abolition consistently left larger structures in place, including the distribution of wealth and resources and broader modes of differentiation and discrimination…. they can leave a legacy that remains to this day, from racism and poverty, to social discrimination and inequality. In this setting, the struggle against slavery feeds into broader issues of social justice and economic development.

Thus, when discussing effective strategies to tackling modern slavery, relying on abolition alone won’t cut it. Modern slavery persists due to the continuation of the power imbalance of this historical system, which also emerges in other forms of trafficking. It is precisely the systems that create this imbalance of power and lack of protections that we need to be targeting. This means the fight to end modern slavery is also the fight for social justice, racial equality, an end to poverty, misogyny, xenophobia, and all forms of discrimination at the hands of governments, the private sector, and society that leads to human rights abuses.

“Historical slavery” hasn’t been eliminated either

At the same time we recognize that every country in the world today has laws on the books outlawing slavery, we would be wrong to claim that slavery as practiced centuries ago has been purged in every corner of the globe. Strong, comprehensive anti-slavery legislation is undoubtedly important to combatting slavery-like practices, but not all laws are created equal. Weak legislation and enforcement, lack of political will and corruption, have resulted in low conviction rates for modern slavery offenses and in places where rule of law is weak, enforcement remains a challenge. In some countries, like Mauritania and Libya, slavery today looks remarkably the same as it did hundreds of years ago.


In these environments, anti-slavery advocates should look to grassroots and bottom-up solutions to challenging these crimes, championing survivors and activists who recognize that addressing slavery does not just mean fulfilling the “negative right” of “freedom from slavery” but also the “positive rights” of equal protections and justice for at-risk communities.


For example, Freedom United stands in support of local anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid in Mauritania – the last country in the world to technically outlaw slavery in 1981. Despite this legal change, the government has failed to end it in practice with descent-based slavery, or chattel slavery, remaining entrenched in Mauritanian society.


Light-skinned Arab-Berber people—who represent a minority of the population, but dominate politically and economically—have long enslaved dark-skinned Haratine people and Afro-Mauritanians to tend to livestock and perform domestic work, and the practice continues to this day with ‘ownership’ passed down through families. By some estimates as much as 18% of the population is enslaved, enduring long days without pay along with traumatic physical and sexual violence as they are forced to do their masters’ bidding.


Abeid, the founder of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, has helped to free countless men, women, and children from slavery, yet he and his allies have been persistently harassed and arrested by the Mauritanian authorities due to their advocacy and campaigning efforts.


Similarly, in Libya we have seen the effects of racism and colorism driving slavery in the North African state. The world was shocked when the media exposed African migrants being auctioned off in slave markets a few years ago, and since then we’ve witnessed disturbing reports of migrants and refugees being subjected to forced labor in migrant detention centers plagued by disease and overcrowding.


Black and dark-skinned refugees and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa are the majority of those trafficked and subjected to forced labor. The United Nations even reported that “a commonly used word to refer to black people in Libya is ‘abidat’, which translates to “slaves.”


In 2017, Freedom United campaigned to put an end to these appalling abuses by first calling on the UN Secretary General to investigate and help put an end to slave markets in Libya. To build up pressure to end abuses in migrant detention centers we are now targeting the Libyan Coastguard – generously funded by the European Union – which is responsible for intercepting boats of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and throwing them in detention centers linked to forced labor and disappearances. Migrants have even become targets in Libya’s ongoing civil war. In an appalling airstrike that killed 53 migrants at the Tajoura detention center — located on a military compound — detainees reported that they were forced to work at a weapons depot on-site.


The examples of chattel slavery in Mauritania and the open-air slave markets of Libya illustrate that slavery practices that took hold centuries ago can persist or resurface in some parts of the world. Contemporary forces and politics shape how we respond to them today, but the root causes and the systems that erected these abuses are derived from long-standing racism and discrimination against minorities and the less powerful in society.

III. Discrimination and marginalization: drivers of modern slavery

Those particularly at risk of modern slavery include communities and individuals who lack protections and who have been the victims of persecution and discrimination, both at the hands of governments and capitalist, exploitative private sector actors that fail to address modern slavery in their operations and supply chains. This includes the poor, low-wage migrant workers, ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, prisoners, girls and women, refugees, and other persecuted groups.


We know that modern slavery is more prevalent in certain industries where protections for workers are weak, including sectors such as fishing, domestic work, manufacturing, agriculture, and construction, all of which employ a majority of the above communities, often through informal arrangements. Commonly referred to as “3D jobs” (dirty, degrading, and dangerous), work in these poorly-regulated industries puts workers at risk of being exploited or trafficked by unscrupulous employers. Victims, already marginalized by society, may have limited resources to access legal aid and resources to deal with their trauma, on top of threats and intimidation from their traffickers.


For example, in India the majority of victims of forced and bonded labor, such as those laboring at brick kilns, are from the Dalit, or “untouchable” caste. The discrimination Dalits face as a highly marginalized and impoverished caste directly impacts the types of jobs they can access. Extreme poverty forces the Dalit and other minority groups in India to take out loans that trap them in debt bondage, working endlessly but never earning enough to pay off their debts.


Similarly, in the Middle East migrant workers are harmed by the kafala system, a foreign worker sponsorship scheme in many Gulf states that has been criticized for enabling modern slavery. Kafala ties migrant workers’ residency to their employers, meaning a worker must get explicit permission from their employer to enter, leave, or transfer employment. In cases of abuse and even slavery, running away from an exploitative employer means migrant workers can be arrested and even deported for fleeing.


The kafala system is the legal codification of patronizing, xenophobic societal attitudes towards migrant workers who largely come from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Africa. As migrant workers employed in low-wage jobs such as domestic work or construction – including Qatar’s World Cup facilities – they experience discrimination based on their country of origin and low socioeconomic status.


Simply put, marginalized communities, discriminated against due to their class, race, gender, nationality, physical and mental abilities and other factors, hold less power in society. With less power comes fewer economic, social, and legal protections and that make these communities especially vulnerable to being taken advantage of and exploited by human traffickers. You might be surprised, for instance, that many countries around the world have yet to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention 29 against forced labor or Convention 189 to enshrine protections for domestic workers – two campaigns Freedom United has committed to since our founding.


Even in places where there are laws against slavery, loopholes remain. For example, the United States may have abolished slavery through the 13th Amendment, but in fact it contains a troubling exception: involuntary servitude remains legal as punishment for a crime. This in practice means prisoners across the United States can be ‘legally’ subjected to slavery, forced to work for free as their labor is exploited by the government and sourced to private contractors that turn to prison labor as a source of cheap, free labor.


The legacy of racism in the United States is directly linked to racial profiling, mass incarceration, and state violence against black and brown communities. In recent years, xenophobia and anti-immigrant policies have led to a crackdown on immigrants and refugees being locked up in immigration detention centers across the country. Despite not being charged with a criminal offense, detainees in a slew of lawsuits against private immigration detention centers allege that they have been subjected to forced labor and paid as little as $1 a day. When they refused, they report being threatened with punishment and even solitary confinement. With clear indicators of forced labor in these reports, we continue to campaign against CoreCivic, the company at the center of these human trafficking lawsuits filed by immigrant detainees.

IV. The path forward: championing survivor leaders in the past and the present

The abolition of historical slavery was not simply the result of wealthy, white lawmakers. Far from it: enslaved people resisted, campaigned, and strategized relentlessly to abolish historical slavery. Many died for their cause. The road to the abolition of slavery was marked by repeated organized uprisings and rebellions by enslaved people; many of their leaders are celebrated today, such as Samuel Sharpe in Jamaica and Carlota Lucumí in Cuba.


Other survivors of historical slavery went on to became prominent abolitionist leaders. In Haiti, the formerly enslaved Toussaint Louverture led the successful Haitian Revolution, establishing the world’s first black-led republic and dealing a significant blow to the institution of slavery worldwide. In the United States, Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass survived slavery in the South to become influential anti-slavery figures in the North: changing white Americans’ perceptions, rescuing those still enslaved, and campaigning tirelessly against slavery’s continued existence.


Historical slavery would not have come to an end without the efforts of these victims and survivors. The end of modern slavery will be no different. History teaches us that a successful movement against modern slavery must involve the leadership of survivors, and anti-slavery activists must constantly strive to empower those with lived experience. Too often, this does not happen, and the media relies on sensationalized imagery that does not reflect their reality, creating obstacles to public understanding and support.


Freedom United seeks to by working with survivor-advocates as much as possible and by always adhering to the principles of My Story, My Dignity, which ensure we center survivor voices and treat their stories with dignity. Integral to this approach is recognizing that survivors of modern slavery and those working in high-risk sectors need to lead this movement and have their lived experiences inform effective responses.


In order to end modern slavery around the world, we need to reframe our thinking, including from within the anti-trafficking community. The end goal is not to simply ensure that no human being is a victim of human trafficking, forced labor, or forced marriage. Rather, we strive to enhance and build support for social, political, and legal protections for those at-risk of modern slavery so that they are no longer vulnerable to exploitation. Furthermore, we aim to take a collaborative, intersectional approach to advocacy in recognizing that drivers of modern slavery, such as racism and xenophobia, are also issues that we must stand firmly against and actively work to dismantle in society.


As the world’s largest anti-slavery movement, our supporters illustrate that these goals are shared by an incredibly diverse swath of society. Together, by recognizing lessons of the past and the historical legacy of slavery that persists until today, we can effectively tackle modern slavery in all of its forms.

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