There are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in history. In fact, estimated at 20-30 million, the current number of people enslaved in forced labor is well more than the 13.5 million people taken from Africa during the 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade.
The ballooning numbers of human trafficking is the subject of J. J. Gould’s article, “Slavery’s Global Comeback,” published in The Atlantic this past December. Gould not only covers the statistics but looks at the definitions and perceptions concerning slavery as well as abolitionist movements throughout history.
While, on the one hand, the numbers are worse than they’ve ever been, Gould also sees a reason for muted optimism: Because of the increase in the world’s overall population, the percentage of people currently enslaved is at an all-time low, and the $30-45 million generated by slavery annually is the smallest-ever portion of the global economy. This, along with a growing global intolerance for human trafficking, makes Gould wonder if the current situation is nearing a tipping point for a new abolition movement.
The Faces of Slavery
Slavery takes many forms around the globe, and photographer Lisa Kristine has spent the past two years documenting them with her camera. Kristine first became aware of the scope of human trafficking when, at an exhibit, she met a representative of Free the Slaves. Since then, her subjects have included slaves in the brick kilns of Nepal and India who carry bricks on their heads for 16 to 17 hours every day; children hauling sheets of slate from quarries in the Himalayas; sex slaves in Kathmandu; families in Uttar Pradesh enslaved coloring silk in vats of toxic dye; an estimated 4,000 children forced into fishing on Lake Volta in Ghana; and people forced to pan for gold in water poisoned with mercury, as well as miners and those who crush the stones from the mines, looking for gold, also in Ghana.
You can see her photos and hear her stories in the following TEDtalk. She ends her presentation by showing photographs she took of slaves holding candles she had given them, symbolically “shining a light” on their tragic circumstances. She says,
They knew their image would be seen by you out in the world. I wanted them to know that we will be bearing witness to them. And that we will do whatever we can to help make a difference in their lives. I truly believe, if we can see one another as fellow human beings, then it becomes very difficult to tolerate atrocities like slavery.
Not Just “Over There”
For those of us in the West, we need to realize that forced labor is not a problem limited only to the rest of the world. As present-day abolitionists are quick to point out, while slavery is illegal all over the world, it is also present all over the world. The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 1.5 million people in forced labor in “Developed Economies” (including the United States) and the European Union.
The movie, I Am Slave, gives a glimpse of the kind of slavery that is hidden in plain sight in the West. Inspired by the real-life story of Mende Nazer, it tells of a girl, Malia, stolen from her home in Sudan and forced to work for a family in London. The deeply moving film is advertised as a thriller, but it is less thrilling than it is frightening—frightening for “Malia Al-Noor, daughter of Bah Al-Noor, champion wrestler” . . . in her tribe, a princess . . . in London, a slave—and frightening for us all, as well.
Produced by Altered Image Films, I Am Slave aired on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2010. It is available online in the UK at 4oD and can be rented for streaming at Netflix (viewer discretion, for “violence and some strong language”).
(J. J. Gould, “Slavery’s Global Comeback, The Atlantic, December 19, 2012; “ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour,” International Labour Organization, June 1, 20102)
[photo: “Yr hudol eiliad olaf—Ynys-las,” by Rhisiart Hincks, used under a Creative Commons license]