The Price of Slavery

“Migrant workers from Nepal and other countries are like cattle in Kuwait. Actually, cattle are probably more expensive than migrant workers there. No one cares whether we die or are killed. Our lives have no value.”

— Nepalese man trafficked to Kuwait, during an interview with Amnesty International[1]

Price of Slavery

photo by Henri Ismail

Consider this: In 1850 slaves were regarded as investments. A typical Southern agricultural slave sold for $1,000 to $1,800 (around $50,000 to $100,000 in today’s money). For perspective, this was more than three times the average annual American wage! And since the annual profit made from a slave was only 5-10%, slaveholders had to balance the violent control they inflicted on their slaves against the risk of an injury and lost profits.

Today a slave can be bought for a few hundred dollars[2] or less. To their owners, they are disposable. In India, a bonded laborer costs as little as $36 and generates over a 50% annual profit for his slaveholder. For example, until a slave either escapes, buys her freedom, or dies (average servitude lasts six years), a slave earns for her slaveholder $8,700 in Brazil and $2,000 in India. In sexual servitude the profit is greater: $18,000 over the slave’s working life in Thailand and $49,000 in Los Angeles.[3] With these massive returns and the prevailing economic conditions creating no shortage of desperate people to take their places, it is no wonder that slaves’ lives have so little value to those who would possess them.

What is the global economic impact of slavery? According to a recent International Labour Organization estimate, slaves generate an annual profit of at least $32 billion while victims of slavery lose at least $21 billion each year in unpaid wages and illegal fees for recruitment. According to both the U.S. State Department and Interpol, this means that slavery and trafficking are now believed to be the third largest source of profits for international organized crime, trailing only behind the illegal sale of drugs and guns.

Where we, the consumers, enter the picture is in our unknowing purchases of products made with slave labor. It is tempting but erroneous to draw a direct link between the manufacturer and the consumer and to implicate corporate America as the “middlemen.” In truth, slavery is several steps removed from the American companies from whom we buy. It becomes their responsibility to know their supply chain and our responsibility not to oversimplify a complex situation by believing we can solve slavery simply by making different consumer choices.

To learn more about the complexities of slavery, click here.

For a complete list of countries and goods made with slave and/or child labor, click here.



[1]U.S. Department of Labor, 2012 Trafficking in Missing Persons Report, page 33.

[2] Free the Slaves, “Slavery in the 21st Century: Part 1.” Page 1.

[3] Kara, Siddharth. Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York. Columbia University Press, 2009.