How much is a human life worth? What price would you put on the life of the person sitting beside you? Are some people worth less than others? Does the fact that there are over 7.6 billion people alive today (Worldometer.info 2018) affect the final price?
Now, what do you think when I say it was better to be a slave in the 1800s than it is today?
Everyone knows the saying ‘money is the root of all evil’. Well, it holds some weighty truth. Money is tied to many injustices: corruption, colonialism, environmental degradation and slavery. First, however, I want to illustrate a point with the graph below. Note that monetary values (Hjardar 2017; FTS 2018) were converted to AUS$ using XE Currency Converter.
Notice the sharp decline? In short, a human slave today costs about AUS$120, significantly less than just over 3 centuries ago.
Why the dramatic change? For one, victims are easier to ensnare and transport (FTS 2018). Globally, an estimated 800 million experience extreme poverty (UNDP 2018). Indeed, the poor face the highest risk of becoming slaves (Androff 2011), as I have discussed before. There are also more slaves today than ever before, an estimated 40.3 million (ILO & WFF 2017, p. 9). In blunt market terms, increased supply equals cheaper prices.
The consequences are severe. Past slaves were arguably better off: being so expensive made slaves investments worth maintaining, protecting even (FTS 2018), though all slavery is an injustice. Cheap slaves, conversely, are as disposable as paper cups. Slaves who are injured or sick or flight risks are killed, often without so much as a burial, and easily replaced (Bales 2012).
Still, poor treatment due to low prices is not the only ‘evil root’ money has planted in slavery. Slavery was once seen by many societies as an economically viable trade. Indeed, modern traffickers make US$150 billion in profits annually (FTS 2018). Compare this to a human slave’s average price: US$90 or AUS$120 (FTS 2018).
Yet, slavery no longer means simply owning someone, but “big profits and cheap lives” (Kevin Bales 2012, p. 28). Humans are reduced to mere money-making tools. Some companies, knowingly or unknowingly (coming back to ignorance, as I have discussed), profit from using slave labour to produce goods. Goods that we consume. The chocolate industry’s use of child slavery (BBC 2010) is one example, Thailand’s fishing industry another (HRW 2018). Animals too are enslaved and maltreated in pursuit of profit as with donkeys worked literally to the bone in Nepal brick kilns (Animal Nepal 2013).
How can any life be reduced to such a price? This itself is an injustice, even disregarding the other injustices exacerbated by profit driven slavery. We can begin to right this by pressuring companies to ensure there are no slaves in their supply chains, but this is a beginning only (ASI 2018). Much more still needs to be done.
Alex 2006, ‘Slavery’, image, Flickr, viewed 2 May 2018, <https://www.flickr.com/photos/svoalex/261136098/in/photolist-p5oEw-8kyrDg-26DDZay-26F1kFM-8KdAbz-aBra7L-91knVs-59A6Dk-vtwYX-vtz4q-4Q2qER-qDrAxk-9zX4xh-kH5CFy-91koqN-9zVMy7-2bwUZk-faqq3G-xwqiRq-xwx6mF-wS2eb1-5tVjHo-vtzcD-qZZm69-9zWRHL-5nQEn6-8L3s6w-5URomw-9zTR8t-vtz8F-ciUUey-9zV4Fg-dSU5yy-9zWHa5-vtzeh-9zVL65-nqegmH-9zW6Js-vtwYi-9zSFsx-bEYMAv-R2bRq8-9zXg6o-9zV8dK-vtzer-k6p1p-bydaF8-9zXav1-9zWWjQ-vtz36>.
Androff, D.K. 2011, ‘The problem of contemporary slavery: An international human rights challenge for social work’, International Social Work, vol. 54, no. 2, pp. 209-222.
Animal Nepal, 2013, ‘Animal Nepal shocked by conditions in New Bhairab brick factory’, Animal Nepal’s Blog, viewed 24 April 2018, <https://animalnepal.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/animal-nepal-shocked-by-conditions-in-tika-bhairab-brick-factory/>.
Anti-Slavery International (ASI) 2018, ‘Slavery in supply chains’, Anti-slavery, viewed 2 May 2018, <https://www.antislavery.org/slavery-today/slavery-in-global-supply-chains/>.
Bales, K. 2012, ‘The New Slavery’, Disposable people: new slavery in the global economy, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 26-47.
Free The Slaves (FTS) 2018, ‘Slavery Today’, Free the Slaves, viewed 2 May 2018, < https://www.freetheslaves.net/about-slavery/slavery-today/>.
Hjardar, k. 2017, ‘Viking Society’, Vikings: Raiders from the Sea, Casemate Publishers & Book Distributors, LLC, Havertown, pp. 15-66.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) 2018, ‘Thailand: Forced Labor, Trafficking Persist in Fishing Fleets’, Human Rights Watch, viewed 2 May 2018, < https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/23/thailand-forced-labor-trafficking-persist-fishing-fleets>.
International Labour Organization & Walk Free Foundation (ILO & WFF) 2017, Global estimates of modern slavery: forced labour and forced marriage, International Labour Office, Geneva, pp. 1-65.
BBC 2010, ‘Tracing the bitter truth of chocolate and child labour’, BBC, viewed 2 May 2018, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/panorama/hi/front_page/newsid_8583000/8583499.stm>.
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2018, ‘No 1: Poverty’, United Nations Development Programme, viewed 2 May 2018, < www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-1-no-poverty.html>.
Worldometers.info 2018, ‘Current World Population’, worldometers, viewed 2 May 2018, <http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/>.
XE Currency Converter 2018, ‘XE Currency Converter’, XE Currency Converter, 2 May 2018, < https://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/>.