While many of us may be awakened to the fact that slavery is not just history — that it’s happening today, in every country — how much do we really know about what this means? And do we really understand that slavery touches each one of us?
Around the world, 40 million people are living in slavery today.
When we pause and think about it, that should shock us. But that only really starts to mean something when we get to know the people behind the statistics.
People like Chandramma, who was locked in a small, cramped cell for six months with her 4-year-old son. Working 16-hour days at a silk factory, she daily had to choose whether she used their 2-litre water allowance to hydrate them, or to bathe her son who was developing sores.
A new report from the Walk Free anti-slavery organisation last week found that 1 in every 130 women and girls are in slavery today. These distressing statistics become even harder to stomach when we realise that each of us is unwittingly fuelling slavery. But, before you click away — there is hope.
The first step to stopping slavery is understanding its reality. Once we know the facts, we can be part of change. That's why it’s important to know that the phones we use, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear can all have forced labour in their production.
A silk worm factory where Chandramma worked 16-hour days.
The top five products in the UK that are most likely to have slavery in the supply chain are: tech, clothing, fish, cocoa, and coffee, according to the Global Slavery Index. In fact, according to Ethical Trading Initiative, 77% of UK companies believe that there is a likelihood of slavery in their supply chain.
The good news is that change is possible. When we join together to act — everyone from survivors to NGOs, businesses, governments, and each of us — we can see slavery stopped.
Anti-slavery organisation International Justice Mission worked with local authorities to find and free Chandramma and her son. Once free, she became a bold spokesperson against forced and bonded labour. She has joined the local Released Bonded Labourers Association, which works alongside local authorities to bring freedom to others and push for long-term change.
Chandramma with her son, after being freed from working 16-hour days at a silk factory.
In fact, by working alongside authorities to find and free people trapped in slavery and to hold slave-owners to account, IJM has seen slavery decrease by up to 86%.
While we know that stopping slavery is possible, choosing to fight for freedom has never been more urgent than now — because there’s a serious risk that slavery is about to increase dramatically.
Financial desperation as a result of the COVID-19 crisis is making more people vulnerable to traffickers. The World Bank estimates that a further 49 million people will be plunged into poverty. Already we’re seeing unscrupulous traffickers trick, trap, and coerce people who’ve lost jobs due to the crisis.
“A lot of companies have been recruiting child labourers and young people to work in spinning mills by giving them false promises,” explains an IJM team member. “Since many families find it hard to make ends meet due to the loss of jobs or work opportunities, a lot of them fall prey to these lucrative offers.”
This was the case for a group of 35 teen girls and three young women who became trapped in forced labour at a spinning mill this summer.
Seeing that their families were struggling to make ends meet, factory owners offered these young women steady employment until schools reopened. Instead, they were forced to work exhausting 14-hour days without breaks and were trapped inside the factory at all times. They could not contact their parents and, if they got sick, could not see a real doctor — only getting unknown medicine from the factory owners themselves.
Thankfully, the girls and young women were rescued from the factory and brought to safety. But as you read this, traffickers are looking for opportunities to trap vulnerable people.
Right now, the world is on a knife edge, and it’s up to all of us to stop the exploiters from winning.
This Anti-Slavery Day, we have a unique opportunity to choose the future world we want to see post-COVID. If we take action to increase protection for the most vulnerable people and build back better from the pandemic, we could see lasting, positive change emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.
But we need to choose it. We need to stand with survivors like Chandramma and raise our voices to businesses and governments to say we care about seeing slavery ended and exploitation stopped.
This Anti-Slavery Day, you can be part of shaping a better future. Maybe for you this means raising awareness on social media (today IJM UK has launched a new anti-slavery Instagram and Facebook filter that will help you do just that). Maybe it means learning more about slavery in supply chains, writing to brands you love and asking them what measures they’re taking to stop slavery in their production processes, supporting an NGO, writing to your MP or simply having conversations with the people around you.
Find out more about how to take action here.