Through Free the Slaves’ research, first published in Kevin Bales’ Disposable People, our conservative estimate is that there are 27 million people in slavery today. This means that there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in human history. Slavery has existed for thousands of years, but changes in the world’s economy and societies over the past 50 years have enabled a resurgence of slavery.
Three trends have contributed most to the rise of modern-slavery.
The first, a recent population explosion has tripled the number of people in the world, with most growth taking place in the developing world. The second, rapid social and economic change, have displaced many to urban centers and their outskirts, where people have no ‘safety net’ and no job security. The third, government corruption around the world, allows slavery to go unpunished, even though it is illegal everywhere. In this way millions have become vulnerable to slave holders and human traffickers looking to profit through the theft of people’s lives. This new slavery has two prime characteristics: slaves today are cheap and they are disposable.
An average slave in the American South in 1850 cost the equivalent of $40,000 in today’s money; today a slave costs an average of $90. In 1850 it was difficult to capture a slave and then transport them to the US. Today, millions of economically and socially vulnerable people around the world are potential slaves. This “supply” makes slaves today cheaper than they have ever been. Since they are so cheap, slaves are today are not considered a major investment worth maintaining. If slaves get sick, are injured, outlive their usefulness, or become troublesome to the slaveholder, they are dumped or killed.
Since slavery feeds directly into the global economy, it makes sense that we would be concerned by the ways in which slavery flows into our homes through the products we buy and the investments we make. Slaves harvest cocoa in the Ivory Coast, make charcoal used to produce steel in Brazil, weave carpets in India—the list goes on. These products reach our stores and our homes.
In addition, there may be people held in slavery in your community. Slavery happens in nearly every country in the world, and the US and Europe are not immune. Research that Free the Slaves conducted with the University of California, Berkeley found documented cases of slavery and human trafficking in more than 90 cities across the United States.