At this moment, there are an estimated 40.3 million victims of modern slavery around the globe — a larger number than the entire population of Canada.
Modern slavery is the severe exploitation of another person for economic or personal gain. It looks like forced domestic servitude and sexual exploitation; like forced marriage and human trafficking; like individuals who are simply trying to feed their families or get an education who become trapped in coerced labor through the withholding of passports, violent threats, or inescapable debt bondage. It is a global problem that exists in the sectors of construction, manufacturing, agriculture, fishing, and more.
Modern slavery touches the food we eat and many products we buy. Your latest purchase may have been tainted by forced labor undertaken by the Uyghur ethnic minority in China’s Xinjiang region. The seafood I ate yesterday may have been produced by modern slavery practices in the Thai fishing industry, where, too often, migrants — lured in by the false promise of a good job — end up trafficked, starved, sold from boat to boat, and tortured. According to research from the Environmental Justice Foundation, the organization’s 2015 report found that some workers are murdered and others jump overboard to their death.
The United Nations estimates that 24.9 million of all modern slavery victims are trapped through forced labor, and 15.4 million are trapped through forced marriage. The issue exists in every region and affects people from all walks of life. But those most vulnerable are women, migrants, and people living in extreme poverty. A quarter of all victims are children.
Modern slavery is not something we discuss regularly — meaning there’s less pressure on policymakers and corporations to do anything about it. Far too often, politicians and world leaders act like it doesn’t exist, and coverage of the issue is scant, hardly ever making the front page.
Learning about modern slavery — its pervasiveness and how little is being done about it — is what first led me to become a human rights activist. I like to think the fact that I’ve been able to reach like-minded individuals from around the globe means significant change is on the horizon, but the reality is we have not even scratched the surface of what needs to be done.
With human trafficking being one of the fastest-growing crimes worldwide, and with the COVID-19 pandemic and climate crisis drastically increasing the number of people at risk, the need to act on this issue is greater than ever.
On August 20 — ahead of the United Nation’s upcoming September assembly — I’ll be leading a modern slavery day of awareness to draw attention to the issue and demand that our leaders take more drastic action to address it. I’ll be sending updates to those who sign up.
It’s imperative that we make noise around this human rights crisis. So speak up, make a sign, or even organize a demonstration in your town. Any way you can shed light on modern slavery and the dire need to tackle it will help make a difference. Post photos of your efforts across social media; tag me at lela_tolajian or @ltolajian and use the hashtag #standuptomodernslavery.
The issue demands a multifaceted solution. Because those at the highest risk of becoming victims are migrants and impoverished people, we need safer channels of migration, and increased efforts to bolster socioeconomic security, such as access to education and sustainable sources of income, for the most vulnerable communities. To reduce the very real risk of re-trafficking, we need more support for survivors, including housing and medical care. It is also critical to foster community-based organizations to fight this type of exploitation in vulnerable areas.