How many slaves work for you? Paradoxically – in 2013 – the question is still relevant, and the answer surprising. Depending on where you live, what you buy, what your lifestyle is, you have almost certainly been touched by slavery.
Modern-day slavery takes many forms: human trafficking, forced and bonded labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced marriage. What these crimes have in common is the evil intention to strip human beings of their freedom, and then to control and exploit them.
Slavery is a global issue. In some parts of the world people are still born into hereditary slavery, in others people are trafficked from one state to another, stripped of their passports and enslaved. Slaves walk among us. You might tip one at a hotel or speak to them at your nail salon. They look like regular workers but they are not.
There are currently 29.6 million slaves around the world, more than ever before, about equal to the populations of Australia and Denmark combined. Slavery is a fast-growing industry worth $32-billion a year, equal to the profit of McDonalds and Wal-Mart combined.
It's a story of debt, fraud and coercion. An estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States every year. Some enter legally, with a visa and a job. But that job is subcontracted, hiding the harsh reality of abuse and exploitation behind a clean uniform. Those trafficked are forced to repay recruitment fees, travel costs, accommodation bills. They work long hours, seven days a week, without pay, in the impossible attempt to repay a debt which will never be settled.
Modern-day slaves are found in unexpected places. Washington, D.C., was rocked a few years ago by allegations of human trafficking by diplomats working at embassies and international institutions.
According to the latest official estimates there are between 800-1,200 victims of human trafficking in Canada. Evidence of forced labour has surfaced in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. Activists argue the trend is on the rise, putting the potential number of victims at 15,000.Unfortunately it is impossible to assess the real magnitude of the problem, as the Canadian government has stopped collecting such data in 2004, citing the 'difficulty of accurately estimating Canada's trafficking problem'
Across the European Union there are currently 880,000 people engaged in forced labour across. 58 per cent are women, the majority victims of sexual exploitation – the most lucrative form of slavery
Slavery is justified by reference to custom, ethnicity, even religion. In Mauritania 20 per cent of the population is born into slavery and owned, largely, by the White Moors, one of the country's three ethnic groups. Only victims can file a complaint, yet the slaves are illiterate and do not know their rights.
India – with a population of more than 1.2 billion – has more slaves than any other country: 14.7 million. With extreme poverty culturally tolerated, caste and debt bondage is endemic. Sexual exploitation of women and children is widespread, law enforcement sporadic and weak.
Slavery is a silent crime. Victims don't come forward. In the EU the number of convictions for human trafficking has dropped by 13 per cent in the past few years; the latest U.S. data show that only 7,705 prosecutions took place in 2012, though the number of identified victims reached 46,570. In Canada, as of February 2013, there were 77 ongoing human trafficking prosecutions. In 2012 only 27 convictions took place, 12 in 2011.
Some victims don't see themselves as such, especially victims of sexual exploitation, who tend to develop a psychological dependence on their abuser. Victims of domestic slavery are often foreigners who cannot leave the house or speak the local language. Others are simply afraid to seek help.
The courage of Leticia Sarmiento, the Filipino nanny at the centre of the recent landmark human-trafficking case in British Columbia is direct evidence that justice can be achieved when victims of human trafficking speak out.
Each of us has a role to play in the battle against human trafficking. Individuals who encounter slaves have a moral responsibility to come forward.
Businesses must demand real transparency from subcontractors. The State of California recently adopted the innovative approach of fining the hiring firms for violations of national employment laws committed by their subcontractors.
Governments must treat slavery as a crime, not an immigration issue. In the United States, a victory has been won as victims of human trafficking now have the right to stay in the country while suing the perpetrators, using U.S. law.
Lawyers must work to ensure that all victims of human trafficking have access to free legal representation and restitution for unpaid work.
Governments must also end the culture of impunity for the traffickers and the offenders and fight slavery on an international basis.
We cannot afford to lose the fight against human trafficking. Slavery should belong to the history books.
Monique Villa is the CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation