Our smartphones are powered by lithium ion batteries, but the slave labour involved in mining cobalt for them is largely ignored. The fashion industry is plagued by labour exploitation across the supply chain, from plucking pf cotton in China to sweatshops in Cambodia where branded t-shirts are stitched up. The evil of slavery is probably as old as civilisation, since it originated in ancient Sumeria, while it was adopted in the east during the Qin dynasty’s rule in China.
Fast forward to the 21st century
Even in the 21st century, almost 50 million people across the globe are living as modern slaves, and 71 per cent of them are women, while 25 per cent are children. These people, a lot more than the 13 million affected by the transatlantic slave trade, are forced to work for excessive hours, without freedom of movement and are traded like goods. Among them are 40,000 children who are being forced to work in cobalt mines across Africa, and thousands of boys in Bangladesh exploited for labour during the pandemic.
The cost of our comfort
In India, modern slavery is visible in the form of bonded labour, which had been prohibited by law in the 1970s. But failure to implement norms has failed to stem the practice, as eight million people are forced to work without pay after being trapped by debt. According to the global slavery index, bonded labour is also being used to exploit more than two million people in neighbouring Pakistan.
The west isn’t so far ahead either
The UN estimates that the transatlantic slave trade led to 17 million deaths, but slavery in US hasn’t completely been wiped out. The 13th amendment bars slavery, but an exception clause allows exploitation of people incarcerated for crimes. About eight lakh prisoners in the US work for as low as 13 cents an hour to generate goods worth $11 billion every year for brands including Walmart, Starbucks and McDonald’s.
An evil hidden in plain sight
This happens 73 years after the UN assembly adopted a convention to stop trafficking of people and the exploitation of the prostitution of others on December 2, 1949. As slavery continues to plague humanity, we celebrate this day as the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.
While we are shocked by images of slave trade in war zones such as Libya and African migrants which face exploitations, it’s also important to look at working conditions of underpaid and abused domestic workers in our own neighbourhoods in Indian metro cities.
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