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18th Karlsruhe Dialogues – Speakers

Contemporary Slavery and the Modern Slave Trade

Prof. Dr. Zoe Trodd 


Prof. Dr. Zoe Trodd

Prof. Dr. Zoe Trodd is professor and chair of American Literature in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. Previously she taught at Columbia University in the US. She has a PhD and an MA from Harvard University and a BA from the University of Cambridge. Her main focus is the history, literature, and visual culture of protest movements, especially of historic and contemporary antislavery. Her books about slavery and abolitionism include Picturing Frederick Douglass: The Most Photographed American of the Nineteenth Century (forthcoming), The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (2012), Modern Slavery: The Secret World of 27 Million People (2009), To Plead Our Own Cause: Personal Stories by Today’s Slaves (2008) and Meteor of War: The John Brown Story (2004). Her other books are about the American Civil War, the civil rights movement, and American protest literature. She has also published numerous articles about slavery, abolitionism, and social protest, including on contemporary slavery and modern antislavery culture. She has held fellowships from the British Academy, the American Council of Learned Societies, Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, UNC Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of the American South, and Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Trodd recently addressed the European Parliament Human Rights Subcommittee on the question of the EU’s antislavery policy, and works with antislavery NGOs on their campaigns, especially their use of visual culture and historical memory.




Does the world market society lead to new forms of human trafficking or is it possible that it can become an opportunity for the enforcement of international standards for decent working conditions?

Throughout history slavery has adapted fluidly to a changing world, and it continues to do so today. As the International Labour Organization (ILO) puts it, slavery and human trafficking are the “underside of globalisation”. New forms of bondage spread slaves and slave-based activities around the globe with little government control. With the financial systems of globalisation, without labour market regulation, slave profits flow smoothly across national borders and governments find it very difficult, if not impossible, to stop the flow of this money. A country’s laws stop at its border, but the global slave traffic flows over and under borders like water through a sieve. Many human traffickers operate over the Internet, using its global reach to find customers and make deals. And with slavery illegal everywhere, all slaveholders have to act in similarly clandestine ways, hiding their slaves and squeezing out their profits. Locked into a global economy where money, goods, and people flow in many directions, slave traffickers increasingly run their ‘businesses’ in similar ways. Slavery’s flows are merging and crossing. In Brazil, slaves are ‘recruited’ in densely populated, economically depressed regions and then shipped over 1000 miles to the forests where they make charcoal. The charcoal, in turn, is shipped another 1000 miles for use in steel mills. The resulting steel is sold to Canada and the US. The European Union imports nearly a million tonnes of Brazilian steel each year to produce everything from cars to buildings to toys. Women are trafficked from Burma or Laos for use in brothels in Thailand, Japan, or Europe. Capital from Hong Kong funds the brothels of Thailand and investment from Europe supports the charcoal operations of Brazil. While much of today’s slave labour is aimed at local sale and consumption, slave-made goods filter throughout the global economy. Millions of slaves in India grow food, quarry stone, or produce other commodities that are used in their own towns and villages, but rugs made by slave children in India, Pakistan, and Nepal are mainly exported to Europe and the US. The phenomenon of globalisation means that the goods we buy are increasingly assembled in different parts of the world, using components from all over the world. There are numerous steps and parts that go into making a product, and slavery can creep into any one of them. Slaves are used to produce many of our basic commodities. Originating from numerous different countries, there are documented cases of slavery in our carpets, cocoa, cotton, timber, beef, tomatoes, lettuce, apples and other fruit, shrimp and other fish products, gold, tin, diamonds and other gemstones, shoes, clothing, fireworks, rope, rugs, rice, and bricks. Coffee is sometimes grown with slave labour and some sugar is harvested using slaves. In the Congo, armed gangs force local villagers to dig a mineral called tantalum. The gangs sell the tantalum to exporters who send it to Europe and Asia for use in the production of cell phones and computers. And slavery creeps into investments. Pension funds or mutual funds may have stock in companies that employ other companies that use slave labour.

However, governments and industries can intervene. Businesses can help stop slavery by taking responsibility and cleaning up their product chains. For example, within Europe the EU could design a law similar to the ‘California Transparency in Supply Chains Act’ of 2010, a version of which is currently before the UK Parliament as the ‘Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill’, requiring all companies trading over a certain size to publish information about the efforts they are making to ensure modern slavery is not in their supply chains. An EU Directive on Transparency in Supply Chains, aimed at companies operating in the EU with annual gross receipts exceeding 100 million euros, would increase companies’ accountability and encourage them to be proactive in addressing slavery through compliance systems. Companies would be required to disclose this information in their annual reports and on their websites. The EU could highlight the good work of companies that have ensured their supply chains are slavery-free and would move corporations forward towards ethical sourcing. Additionally, small alterations in the business tax regime could deliver significant support to actively responsible companies. At the same time, the EU could invite civil society groups to engage with companies, help identify slavery in their supply and sub-contracting chains, and carry out independent third-party reviews of company programmes. It could also bring together everyone who benefits from a commodity or product to clean up its product chain, along the lines of the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI). Governments can act as matchmakers between competing companies and the anti-slavery movement in this process, and should actively bring together stakeholders. At a higher level the issue of slavery in the supply chain can and should be dealt with in the governance of international trade. At the most basic level, and perfectly permissible within the trade regulations of the World Trade Organization (WTO), is the simple prohibition that no slave-made goods or commodities can be imported into the EU. Then, in addition to working with businesses, the EU could negotiate trade agreements with non-EU countries that prohibit the circulation of goods produced using slave labour. It could pass and enforce a law that slave-made goods may not be imported into, exported out of, or traded within the EU. Slavery is itself a drag on both trade and national economies, so its eradication should be a key element of trade law. The EU could also develop and publish an annual country-specific list of goods produced by forced labour in non-EU countries, and specify that the problem must be significantly reduced (if not eliminated) for it to be removed from the list. A useful model is the US Department of Labor’s ‘List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor’. If governments do not respond – for example by implementing a system of inspections and protections – the EU should reduce import quotas from those countries. Finally, governments must enforce their own anti-slavery laws. To make this happen every country has to understand that they must take action or face serious pressure. The EU could encourage EU and non-EU countries to establish slavery inspectorates, and lead the way within Europe as an example for non-EU countries, perhaps making the slavery inspectorates part of existing national labour inspectorate systems and supported by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, aimed at the industries and economic sectors that are most likely to use slaves. An inspection process would locate slaves and deter ‘employers’ from their use. The inspectors would help provide data for the annual list of slave-made goods. The verdict of the slavery inspectorates should be legally recognised by governments, so that – in addition to prosecution for the individuals who engaged in trafficking and enslavement – business entities will have their license to trade taken away and their property seized until they cease using slave labour. Private banks should be encouraged to refuse them credit until slavery is removed. A useful model for this ‘dirty list’ is Brazil’s Lista Suja do Trabalho Escravo (Black List of Slave Labour).