There are 27 million enslaved people in the world today. To put that in perspective, that is more than at any other time in history. It is perhaps the greatest failing of modern societies- every country has abolished slavery, and yet it is an epidemic of unprecedented scale. In the twentieth century, we eradicated smallpox, stopped famine in dozens of countries, and made strong progress against malaria and cholera. It would seem that with technology and international cooperation, we are on the path to ensuring basic standards of living for all people. The Millennium Development Goals – an ambitious set of priorities created by the United Nations, is being met (PDF, look at p. 2 for a good chart) in many instances, or at least there is some progress.
Yet we have failed to stop humans from owning other humans. It is endemic to all continents- from indentured domestic workers in southeast Asia and the Middle East to sexual trafficking in San Francisco. Our own country has never wrestled away the demon that is slavery. Though the war between one half of American and the other eventually declared slavery an abomination, the white plantation society continued working with sharecroppers rather than slaves. California ignored the Thirteenth Amendment and continued to make ‘vagrant’ indigenous people into slaves- well into the 1870s.
California is an example of a long tradition- stating you are against slavery, while practicing it under another name. Many countries, in both developed and developing countries, have not seriously addressed the importation of children to be used as indentured domestic workers. These children, often sold by their parents to feed the rest of their family, are trafficked around the globe- some end up in the United States.
Then there is sex trafficking- both of children and adults, in both genders. Often we think of southeast Asia when the topic comes up, but it is an epidemic. Several exposes have shown that San Francisco is a place for imported sex slaves.
There is no easy explanation for why slavery has not been eradicated. I would criticize lax oversight of people moving across borders, and a focus on arresting sex workers rather than the trafficker who put them there.. Sweden has the interesting policy that selling sex is not illegal, but buying it is. Combined with aggressive measures against pimps and traffickers, it recognizes something we may forget- there are millions of victims, who have had their lives taken.
Ultimately slavery is a product of poverty, and of wealth. The people who are too poor to live sell themselves or their children, and the people who create the demand for slaves are wealthy and often see it as just another business. The societal acceptance for unfree labor must be broken, as it has become just another customs that law enforcement fails to see as important.
Slavery is the greatest evil- it is prison for the innocent, and a currency for the morally bankrupt.
We have climbed mountains just as tall, and engaged in international efforts just as large. Let’s turn 27 million into zero, and let’s start now.