International Day for the Abolition of Slavery

The reality of slavery today – Your food, your clothes, your technology, and sometimes your sexual services.

Slavery has been a part of human history ever since the dawn of civilisation. It dates back 10,000 years to Mesopotamia. Throughout the history of slavery, female slaves have been called upon for sexual services. This sexual exploitation of women is nothing new. In ancient Sparta and Athens, there was widespread dependence on slave labour. Similarly the practice of slavery carried onto Rome, and slaves were prevalent in the Middle Ages. Then came the Transatlantic Slave Trade, inaugurated by the Portuguese, followed by the Spanish. Ultimately this led to the Abolitionist movement that still carries on today. In the early 1900s, the Danish, British, and America made the slave trade illegal. However slave trading and slavery itself continued profusely. Most contemporary economically developed societies have been built on the profits of slave labour.

Today we observe the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. It has been 208 years since the Transatlantic Slave Trade was abolished. However slavery remains part of modern society.

It is believed that there are more slaves today then in any other time in human history. The estimate sits generally between 20 to 30 million. Unlike in the past, slavery is no longer in the open, it is illicit and underground, therefore more difficult to monitor and address. This means that estimates of the numbers of slaves are never completely accurate, and in fact figures could be far higher or potentially lower. What does underpin modern slavery is the economic structures of free market, free trade, economic deregulation, flow of information and goods, in a growing borderless world. These attributes reflect modern neoliberal economic ideology, which sees the devaluation of social welfare, health care and equal education: the value of the pursuit of high profit with the lowest costs. Neoliberalism abandons ethics: it is a kind of attitude that encourages the commodification of anything with potential profit, regardless of underlying circumstances, which may be inherently against our basic rights.

Shockingly, this sort of attitude is pervasive now more than ever. Recently, in response to the landmark decisions of Amnesty International to endorse the complete decriminalization of sex work, the head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, tweeted “All want to end poverty, but in the meantime why deny poor women the option of voluntary sex work?” This statement reinforces assumptions that all sex workers are poor, all sex workers do it for a quick buck, poverty and sex work are synonymous, and that poor and voluntary can coexist. Importantly this message purports that we should seek the most profitable economic avenue in any situation, without acknowledging the structural problems that create these situations. Where are the questions relating to why, since the emergence of slavery 10,000 years ago, have women been consistently used for forced sexual labour? And why now, are we pursuing policies of abandonment of healthcare and social welfare, which effect women disproportionately, and increase their vulnerability to be trafficked into sexual slavery? Given that we have seen the effects it has on women. Then again, many know that war often leads to violence against women, political turmoil, economic disengagement, and the overall halt of development, however we continue to go to war regardless.

So what are we doing wrong in our efforts to combat slavery? Everyday citizens in privileged positions are not taking enough time to manage their slavery product consumption. Awareness is not widespread enough. Public pressure is not big enough. We have an incredible power collectively as consumers to alter the profits of transnational corporations. If we refuse to consume products that are made by forced labour, or if we pursue the education of purchasers of sex so they may be more ethical in their “consumption”, we raise the profile of the people who are being exploited. If we go for a beach holiday in Thailand, we put pressure on our fellow tourists to understand their impact, their participation in negative tourism (such as sex tourism). But importantly, we promote the conversation, never allow people to forget about the continued slavery in the world, and pursue ideals of sustainable and equitable development.

It is in Australia, and it’s throughout the whole world. Don’t forget. Start the conversation.

Watch this documentary on labour exploitation of migrant workers in Australia today. 

Follow this link to calculate your slavery footprint. 

By Nina