Modern slavery: Do some workers still not have a choice?

Slavery is often thought of as a thing of the past. Unfortunately, that’s not the case – The International Labor Organisation (ILO)—a United Nations organisation that looks at workers’ rights — estimates that 21 million people are currently forced to work through violence or intimidation across the world.¹ That’s just a bit less than the whole population of Australia.

Slavery, as it is defined by the ILO, includes bonded labor, human trafficking, the worst forms of child labor and domestic work and migrants working in terrible conditions without any rights or protections. 

How is slavery still allowed to exist? On a simple level it can be boiled down to supply and demand. People across the world still live in vulnerable situations, forced into situations of what’s known as ‘bonded labor’ where they need to work to pay off a debt they might need to work their whole lives to clear.² In other situations, people who live in economies that are unable to supply them with what they need to survive are foced to migrate, and are exploited by slave traders who know they are in a position of power over the migrant in question. Because they are often not protected by workers’ rights given their illegal status, benefits of the law might not extend to them, so they end up enslaved.³

Economic arguments often assume that individuals are rational, self-interested, and in control of their decisions – for those who find themselves enslaved in the 21st century, this is clearly not the case. And models assessing how the economy of a country is doing could easily paint a false picture if they didn’t take into account that some labor was neither paid for, nor voluntary. So addressing the fact that modern slavery still exists is essential to building an economic discipline that reflects the world around us.