Max Walden

About Max Walden

Max is a researcher and social justice advocate who has worked in the education and community sectors in Australia and Southeast Asia. He is interested in the promotion of the human rights of vulnerable groups, particularly asylum seekers and refugees.

World in chains: The thriving industry of human slavery

Slavery, as Max Walden explains, is not a historical relic, it is a shifting modern industry which has never been larger.


It is generally accepted that slavery ended with the Abolitionist Movement in the first half of the nineteenth century. Was the historical yardstick planted with the death of the Atlantic slave trade? Or maybe it ended when it was abolished five years after the American Civil War in 1865? Perhaps even when Brazil ended involuntary servitude in 1888?


As of 2015, more people are enslaved than ever before in human history.

One of the more horrific Islamic State atrocities is its reported practice of enslaving women for sex. Jihadists are said to trade captured young women of the Yazidi sect at market as if they were goods. This has rightfully received significant reportage in the international media.

But the scourge of slavery was alive and kicking before Daesh had spread its tentacles across captured territory of Syria and Iraq.

An estimated 21 to 36 million people are enslaved worldwide. Modern slavery does not necessarily fit the Western social imaginary of Africans brought to the Americas in chains, as depicted in Roots or Twelve Years a Slave. It may have one or several of the following characteristics, including where people are: forced to work through mental or physical threat; owned or controlled by an “employer”; dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as property; or restricted in freedom of movement.

The explosion of the world’s population means that human life is plentiful and treated as disposable. While in 1850 the average slave in the American South was priced at the contemporary equivalent of US$40,000, today on average a slave costs only $90 worldwide.

Human trafficking is a major facet the of slave industry.

Thousands of people are tricked into labour migration with the promise of a well-paid job overseas that doesn’t exist. In the case of women, this brings with it the added risks of sexual exploitation via forced labour in brothels or forced marriage. The kidnapping and use of child soldiers is another.

Debt bondage, whereby impoverished people are forced to work to “repay” impossibly difficult financial obligations is another form of slavery. In some cases, whole families are owned by slave holders, who impose psychological and in some cases violent pressure upon those in forced labour. It is a widespread practice in rural India despite being outlawed.

In many cases, global slavery is perpetuated at the bottom of the supply chain as the result of Western demand for cheaper food and consumer products. Thailand’s fishing industry has become notorious for the widespread enslavement of economic migrants from Cambodia and Myanmar. People traffickers have this year seen the opportunity to exploit the tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing persecution by pushing them into servitude, often with the complicity of Thai officials. The largest tuna company in the world, Thai Union Group, is supplied by fishing boats which used kidnapped and enslaved workers.

This is not a problem limited to developing countries.

This week, a Guardian investigation revealed that forced labour on fishing boats extends as far as Ireland. Workers from Ghana, the Philippines and Egypt are reportedly being illegally trafficked into the country under promise of work in the UK, and made to work “unlimited hours” for a fraction of the wage of their European co-workers.

France outlawed modern-day slavery in 2013, due to more than 200 reports of slavery in that country per year. Many of these cases happen within and between families, where women are transported from West and North Africa for holidays and are not returned. Instead, they are held as workers in the home and made vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The UK also passed an anti-modern slavery bill this year which came into effect last month.

Forms of slavery and forced labour exist in Australia too.

The Australian Federal Police has investigated at least 558 cases of human trafficking, slavery and slave-like conditions since 2004. Anti-Slavery Australia is currently assisting 70 victims of human trafficking, many of whom are under 18. Forced marriages of children are scarily commonplace.

There are too many cases of migrant workers to Australia being exploited in labour situations akin to slavery. A common scheme resembles bonded labour, where workers are attracted here with a free ticket, only to work for free to pay back an inflated debt under horrific conditions, and intimidated by their employer.

Governments and communities must actively speak out and protect people from having their human rights violated. Laws that severely punish slaveholders can emphasise that a civilised society does not tolerate such abuses.

Companies can investigate and hold their supply chains accountable. Some have already taken action on stamping out slavery. High-end American clothing manufacturer Patagonia has implemented a new working conditions policy for its factory workers, after discovering its workers in Taiwan were under bondage-like working conditions.

We are all implicated through our consumption of products that rely upon forced labour of others. Increasingly free flows of trade, currency and labour in the global economy cannot continue to rely upon removing the freedom of vulnerable people. Consumers and legislators alike need to speak out against what is an insidious problem.

Slavery in all its forms, must finally be freed.


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