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Human Trafficking: The Contributing Factors
Several factors have contibuted to the rise of the new slavery. The first is the tripling of world population since World War II—from 2 to 6 billion—largely in countries where slavery is most prevalent today. Across Southeast Asia, South America, the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and the Arab countries, exploding populations are overwhelmingly young and poor. As sheer numbers overrun resources and employment opportunities, people become desperate and life becomes cheap. Especially in those areas where slavery had persisted or was part of the historic culture, the population explosion enlarged the pool and lowered the price of new slaves.
Social and Economic Change
The second factor is rapid social and economic change. In many developing countries modernization has tended to enhance the wealth of the elite few and to deepen the poverty of the masses. During the past fifty years, Africa and Asia have been scarred by civil wars and dictatorial regimes which have confiscated national resources, often with the active or tacit support of one of the superpowers. Although modernization has in some instances been accompanied by improvements for the larger society in terms of better access to health care and education, the concentration of land in the hands of the privileged and powerful, the forced shift from subsistence to cash-crop agriculture, and government policies that suppress farm income in favor of cheap food for the cities have all helped bankrupt millions of peasants and drive them from their land.
Government Corruption and Social Chaos
In Europe and North America the police fight organized crime; in Thailand the police are organized crime. If slavery can be concealed in countries like Great Britain, it is not hard to imagine how slavery thrives in countries where government officials profit from it. The extreme profitability of slavery means that slaveholders can buy political power and acceptance. In Thailand, Pakistan, India, and Brazil, local police serve both as enforcers of fraudulent contracts and as bounty hunters for runaway slaves.
This disintegration of civil order often occurs in times of rapid social and political change. A community under stress—whether precipitated by disease, natural disaster, economic depression, or war—can rapidly descend into chaos. These conditions are found, for example, in the frontier areas of Brazil and at the rural/urban interface in Thailand. Transitional economies in these locales drive farming families off the land and into poverty while fostering a demand for unskilled labor in cities. Destitution leads to the collapse of traditional systems of family or community support for the most vulnerable, and these systems are not replaced with effective state welfare measures. Without a safety net, the poor become powerless and easily exploited by the ruthless.
Slavery blossoms in precisely these circumstances. To control their slaves, slaveholders must be able to use violence with impunity, and the decentralization of violence in the hands and weapons of local police or soldiers provides slaveholders with the control they need.
These factors—exploding population, economic change, and government corruption—have collaborated to fuel the new slavery. More than any other time in human history, there is a super-abundance of potential slaves. Consistent with the law of supply and demand, slaves are now so cheap that they have become cost effective in many new kinds of work, thus revolutionizing how they are regarded and used. Like appliances which are cheaper to replace than to repair, slaves are now disposable commodities. Slaveholders get all the work they can out of their slaves and then throw them away.
It is this element of disposability which chiefly distinguishes the new slavery from the old. Slaves in the American South were protected like valuable livestock. Ownership was legal and long-term. In their own self-interest, slave owners had incentive to protect the health of slaves and to encourage them to have offspring since raising new generations of slaves was cheaper than buying slaves as adults. By contrast, today’s slavery is relatively short-term, lasting only as long as profitability allows. If slaves get sick, they are allowed to die. If slaves become disabled, they are discarded. If female slaves become pregnant, especially those exploited in prostitution, they suffer violent, forcible abortions. The old slavery was horrific, but the new slavery is horrific beyond measure.