How we have become part of the problem of modern slavery

Tony Read says to end the misery of human trafficking, we must first recognise our own complicity

Today we need to ask who are the slave masters and who are the slaves
There is a growing awareness and a movement is building round the world to end the trafficking of people for profit. The United Nations has established July 30 as World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, and is encouraging all nations to join its blue-heart campaign to fight against trafficking's insidious inroads into every nation.

Trafficking is estimated to be a US$150 billion business causing untold human misery. Counter-trafficking organisations, major businesses, governments and religious groups are making significant commitments to work together to eradicate slavery. Parallels are often drawn between the work of William Wilberforce and a group of more than 20 abolitionists who worked together to help abolish the African slave trade in the 18th century, and efforts today to end modern-day slavery, as it is now termed. This name was chosen to shock the world into action.

Yet, despite all the attention and effort, there seems to have been little impact so far.

Today, we point the finger elsewhere and try to bring down the slave traders, the bad guys and the traffickers, thinking that the need for abolition is out there somewhere

It is estimated that out of an estimated 35 million slaves worldwide, a mere 50,000 victims have been released. If we face up to the issue squarely, it seems clear that the traffickers are far better at their game than the counter-traffickers. They have far greater incentive to succeed than those trying to bring them to account; the sheer diversity of guises and opportunity gives them a nimble advantage over the slow, painstaking work of building solid cases against them.

The problem is that the legal and technical nuances of what constitutes trafficking, and prosecuting it, are a million miles removed from the misery and pain the victims suffer. If we could somehow compute the cost of the suffering and spend an equal amount on prevention, we might make some progress.

But where is the best place to focus our resources?

The chain of involvement in trafficking is long and often stretches over many jurisdictions and involves many accomplices, such that human slavery today has many faces. The three main ones are big business, organised crime and human exploitation.

In the 18th century, there was only one face that mattered - big business. Human exploitation was not considered an issue, and there was no such thing as organised crime. What the 18th century reformers accomplished was to make human exploitation such a significant social issue that it was eventually able to reform big business. Abolition came about as a result of social reform.

Today there is a need to fight that same battle on a far greater scale. Among the many different push and pull factors fuelling human trafficking are 21st century selfishness, greed and comfort. We crave cheap consumer goods, greater pleasure, better lifestyles, sex without responsibility, material comforts and unlimited food.

In the Western world, we take the ability to fulfil our every desire at the cheapest possible price to be almost a God-given right. Yet we hardly recognise that this is the major pull factor that fuels the trafficking business, let alone pause to consider the expense in human suffering. We either don't know or we don't care.

Instead, we blame governments for not having adequate legislation or taking enough action; we blame big business for not controlling their supply chains; we blame banks for not monitoring and reporting dubious clients; we blame the police for not cracking down on organised crime.

The 18th century reformers recognised that, first, they were fighting to win a moral cause within society itself. Today, we point the finger elsewhere and try to bring down the slave traders, the bad guys and the traffickers, thinking that the need for abolition is out there somewhere. Perhaps we should be looking closer to home.

Can we really expect to win a fight against an outrage in which we are complicit without first putting our own house in order? The economic necessity for slavery was as deeply embedded in society in the 18th century as it is today. Is society prepared to continue to profit from other people's misery without a second thought, or do we have the moral backbone to do something about it? Perhaps if we were able to quantify the real cost in broken lives of our addiction to our modern lifestyle as slave masters, we might be motivated to become reformers instead.

Today we need to ask who are the slave masters and who are the slaves. If you are in any doubt, a visit to will show you how many slaves work for you. Perhaps we should add one more face to human trafficking - our own - and recognise our own complicity. We need to do this not to create a sense of guilt about every aspect of our 21st century lifestyle, but to recognise that we have the power at our disposal to do something about it.

We do not need to be a trained expert or anti-slavery campaigner or a lawyer to start making a difference immediately. We can begin to make wise choices about the things we buy, the food we eat and the freedoms we choose, to lessen the demand for the exploitation of those who do not have those choices. Today, we have information at out fingertips and the purchasing power to create a new ethic of consumerism. All we need is the motivation to exercise it.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Master of ourself