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22 June, 2024
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Op-ed: 'Only a leap in consciousness will end human slavery'

In 2019, one trafficker for every 2,154 victims was prosecuted, a drop in the ocean

by Katerina Stephanou

What is standing in the way of successfully eradicating human trafficking and slavery?

As a collective, let us recognize that we are responsible for the condition of our world, which we create, enable and tolerate through our daily personal choices.

While laws and regulations are in place, implementing them depends on society taking responsibility and acting from a place of compassion, integrity and commitment to a bigger cause. Only then will our fellow human beings be saved and protected from abuse and exploitation. Only then can those who have been broken be helped to heal and rebuild their lives. And only then can more traffickers be prosecuted rather than allowed to walk free and repeat their crimes with new victims.

Currently, only about 0.2% of human slavery cases are investigated and prosecuted annually. In 2019, one trafficker for every 2,154 victims was prosecuted. This is only a drop in the ocean and an unacceptable situation that must be changed.

Eradicating human trafficking will take a radical shift in human consciousness. 

What unconscious attitudes enable human slavery and trafficking?

-Profit and competition

Businesses often strive for profit at all costs. Even when those costs are human dignity and even human life, or the wellbeing of the planet. Unfortunately, there is a competitive advantage enjoyed by these businesses that ignore, tolerate or even actively utilize human slaves and trafficking victims in their supply chains, as a result of lower production costs. A competitive advantage that facilitates and fuels the continuous loop of human slavery.

-Inherent selfishness and egocentricity

Most of us make decisions based on personal interests, with little compassion or consideration on how our actions can impact others and the world around us. It is the illusion that we are separate from the world around us that fuels this selfish behavior. And our selfishness, as well as the globalization of indifference, are arguably primary factors enabling sex trafficking and slave labor.

People today can purchase anything they want; from fast fashion, chocolate and coffee, to adult entertainment, 24-hour domestic services and human organs. Where there is demand, there will be supply, but our demands often come at a price. By realizing that our actions and purchasing choices can have detrimental impacts on others, we can make a conscious change as consumers and conscious business leaders. For example, by knowing that a major fast-fashion chain uses child laborers or sweatshops to produce their clothes, we can choose to shop elsewhere. Or by understanding that the demand for pornography implicitly facilitates the sexual exploitation of women and children, we can choose not to consume it.

-Attitudes in action

In her book “Slaves Among Us – the Hidden World of Human Trafficking” Monique Villa describes the experiences of millions of children entrapped in slavery in India. She talks about a rescue operation that took place in 2017, in which 26 children (some as young as four years old), were rescued from a garment factory in Delhi, India. The owner and trafficker treated the children with immense cruelty, forcing them to work in a basement for 22 hours straight and beating them with a hammer or making them stand for two hours if they did something wrong. The children never saw the light, one child could not walk and others had physical injuries all over their bodies. The children believed they had been abandoned by their families and just wanted to go home.

This is the price of fast fashion, of a throwaway, consumerist society duped by the belief that new clothes for each season are needed.

As consumers, do we ask or even consider who made the products we purchase, and under what conditions? What steps are we taking to leverage our purchasing power and encourage ethical business practices?

And as business leaders, what proactive steps do we take to identify human slavery and trafficking risks in our business operations and relationships? Business leaders must be aware of their connections to modern slavery, either with their own supply chains or those of their partners. Courage is needed to influence businesses relationships and move global business practices forward.

The transformative power of a ‘trauma-sensitive’ approach

Human trafficking is a violation of trust and a betrayal of all that is good and decent in human relationships; it strips people of their humanity. Understanding the nature of the trauma caused by human trafficking, and the often life-paralyzing impact on its victims, allows businesses to take responsibility, support survivors and lead in an impactful way that will leave a positive mark on the world.

Going back to the example of child exploitation in Delhi. The children were rescued from the garment factory and taken to Mukti Ashram, a rehabilitation center for children rescued from slavery founded by Nobel Prize Winner Kailash Satyarthi. The children did not trust anyone. Two brothers aged eight and ten were so severely traumatized they refused to speak to anyone for two weeks. When they finally spoke, they asked another survivor: “Why are they so kind to us? Do they want our eyes or our kidneys?” They had never met anyone so caring, or anyone with basic human decency. These children did not know that they had a right to education, to freedom, to play, to have nourishing food and a good quality of life.

Most victims suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Researchers found that experiences of severe, long-term, invasive and repeated trauma, where the victim is in captivity or unable to escape the control of the perpetrator, causes Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). Survivors are incredibly vulnerable, and without professional help and support to enable them to re-integrate as active and financially independent members of society, there is a high probability they will fall back into the loop of exploitation.

How are business leaders responding? Are we stepping up with love and compassion to support survivors in their healing journey and empowering survivors to develop skills and gain financial independence to pursue a fulfilled life?

A leap in consciousness

As a collective, let us recognize that we are responsible for the condition of our world, which we create, enable and tolerate through our daily personal choices. Transforming our world from one rife with corruption and enslavement to one thriving with freedom and dignity will take a leap in our personal consciousness.

Personal consciousness means being aware of the world within us and around us. It means knowing that the choices we make have a real impact on others, in our direct circles and beyond. It means choosing to act and respond in a way that honors our personal values and the rights and freedoms of others.

Values that can change the world to come forth need to be embodied and become mainstream. These values must now become the new norm, the norm on which our decisions are made. Everyone can choose to be empowered, active problem-solvers, but unless we as individuals recognize our contribution to a bad situation, things will not change. Awareness leads to responsibility and choice. Taking positive actions to protect the freedom and dignity of another is everyone’s responsibility.

[Katerina Stephanou LLM, CAMS, Human Rights Compliance Consultant, founder and CEO, Step Up Stop Slavery,]

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