Why Slavery Persists

Why, more than 200 years after its abolition in the United States and on a planet where slavery is universally illegal, does slavery persist? The causes are many and varied, beginning with the fact that we live on a globalized, rapidly industrializing planet with an insatiable need for cheap, consumer goods. But a globalized economy is only a broad, general explanation for modern slavery. Several other factors are interrelated to globalization and help explain its persistence:

  1. Exploding population growth. In 1927, the global population was 2 billion. By 1974, that number was 4 billion. By 1999, it was 6 billion. And in 2011, only 12 years, the population had increased to 7 billion.
  2. Tremendous economic inequality and devastating global poverty. For example, in India 76% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. In China, about 36% lives on the same amount.[1] Both of these countries are emerging economies experiencing the rise of a wealthier class, making for a more pronounced gap between haves and have-nots. Often these economic changes have driven rural populations into urban centers, where they are in vulnerable, unfamiliar situations. The poorest sometimes sell themselves into slavery as an act of self-preservation.
  3. Incessant, armed conflicts. Wars drive people from their homes and leave them vulnerable to predatory traffickers and to those who would enslave them.
  4. Government corruption. When officials responsible for maintaining law and order turn a blind eye and accept bribes, slavery goes unimpeded.
  5. Gender discrimination. Because of their gender, women have a much more difficult time finding sustainable employment, leaving them vulnerable to abuses and enslavement.
  6. Ethnic and racial discrimination. In many societies, certain castes and ethnicities face deep-rooted prejudice and discrimination, making their opportunities fewer and the likelihood of enslavement greater.

Globalization consists of:

  • Economic processes (like the deregulation of financial markets and international trade and investments)
  • Political processes (such the rising demand for democracy in Arab States)
  • Cultural processes (music, art, and social media makes influence global and instantaneous)

Here are several examples of the effects of globalization on contemporary slavery:

As prices remain low while demand remains high, the cocoa industry in Africa is a place of slavery. The economic policies of free trade, export-focused growth, and the restructuring of local subsidies demanded by financial institutions contribute to the price drop of this commodity. With small plantation owners unable to meet their labor costs, slavery becomes an attractive option for those with no other options.

In cases of bonded labor (instances where people sell themselves into slavery in order to repay a debt) in countries like India, Nepal, and Pakistan, globalization has a complex role. Although the practice has existed for centuries and is in many instances an embedded part of the culture, the increase in bonded laborers is linked to growing poverty and the economic uprooting that accompanies rural-to-urban migration patterns caused by the globalizing economy.[2]

In the former Soviet Union, the link between globalization and human trafficking is rooted in increased poverty during the economic transition from communism to capitalism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, unemployment grew drastically with women comprising the majority of the unemployed. Additionally, freely flowing capital has not been matched by freely flowing patterns of immigration. The poor rarely have the opportunity to become legal, economic immigrants. Instead, they pay illegal networks of criminals to help them relocate with the false hope that they will be moving toward better opportunities. This provides a third link to globalization, as criminals are allowed to transfer capital and launder money in a deregulated global economy.[3]

While globalization has opened our eyes to injustice in the world and made us aware of our complicity in these crimes, its processes have also created greater poverty and economic disparity and fostered a planet in which there are more slaves now than at any other time in human history.


[1] CBS Evening News interview with demographer Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University. October 2011.

[2] van den Anker, Christien. The Political Economy of New Slavery. Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, England, 2004. Page 27.

[3] van den Anker, page 25.