Activists protest against the slave trade in Libya, in Pretoria last year. Thousands of Africans, women and children included, trying to get Europe, are being kidnapped and sold. File picture: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Slavery in the 21st century? Yes, it’s a thing. In fact, despite activism and laws, the exploitation of people never went away.

According to a new report released this week, there are some 40 million people living and working in bondage, in what is being described as “modern slavery”.

The research report, released by the Walk Free Foundation, said that while the highest number of people living under conditions of “modern slavery” were in North Korea, Africa remained the epicentre of modern bondage.

It found that in places fraught with war and conflict, and involving mass levels of displacement like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, the numbers were higher. In countries like South Sudan, the Central African Republic or Libya, where governance has collapsed, the vulnerability to exploitation was reportedly also high. In others, like Eritrea or Mauritania, slavery had continued through state-support.

It is estimated that 70% of human beings forced into “modern slavery” are women and children.

Researchers noted the more “surprising” finding was the extent to which slavery existed in rich countries; in the US there were an estimated 403 000 people living in such conditions, while in the UK, there might be up to 126000 living in bondage. They also concluded that despite the legal protection in wealthy countries, consumers and corporations were importing goods and products often produced by serfs and bonded labour.

Coltan for smartphones, diamonds for weddings and engagements, cocoa for chocolates many of the products carried the residue of serfdom along with them, the report said.

In this year’s report, the US was berated for exacerbating the global slavery problem by importing products possibly produced through forced labour.

But as per usual, the story only begins here.

The Global Slavery Index (GSI), which started in 2013, has been repeatedly trashed by scholars in the field for being “suspect” and “unreliable”; in which the definition (of modern slavery) bizarrely changes from one year to the next.

Anne Gallagher, a lawyer and scholar on human trafficking, wrote last year that “modern slavery is a made-up concept with no international legal definition attached to it”.

She argued that GSI included a “raft of exploitative practices and a myriad victims” under an expansive banner of “modern slavery”. School girls abducted by Boko Haram, child soldiers, abused maids in the UK or the Gulf are all part of the definition.

Gallagher accused indexes like the GSI of failing to point to the root cause of exploitation, and political and economic power that kept the poor and oppressed living under duress.

It is the confusion over what constitutes modern slavery and how it might be quantified that makes the problem of exploitation so difficult to resolve.

Scholars working in the field, like Gallagher or Joel Quirk, a political scientist at University of the Witwatersrand, argue that the sensationalist and popular outrage to the idea of “modern slavery” has allowed a universal condemnation to flourish without meaning or substance. In other words, everyone agrees “slavery” is bad, but few countries or politicians care much about ending the practise of exploitation.

Moreover, the uncritical manner in which the stats on slavery are quoted and used have allowed organisations like Walk Free to tackle the issue on its terms. The inconsistent definitions don’t matter and confusing methodology can be ignored, because they are providing the resources to set the agenda.

This type of corporate social responsibility and philanthropic-capitalism is not unique to Walk Free and its ilk. Closer to home, consider the CEO Sleepout in South Africa (as an action against homelessness).

In a context driven by high corporate profits, low, exploitative wages, overwhelming efforts to privatise the economy and every facet of our lives, the “action” of sleeping in the open and donating money against homelessness is a neo-liberal scam.

Similarly, the GSI holds the belief that corporates across the world have the built-in ability to fix its supply chains. It does not admit that the root of modern-day exploitation is the corporate itself.

Quirk, the academic at Wits, also says the attempt to frame slavery as an umbrella of experiences undermines the real fight against particular issues on the ground.

For one, slavery continues for different reasons in different contexts. Second, there are other human experiences and trauma that deserve as much attention, but need not be called “slavery”. The instinct to describe human trafficking or child marriage or any type of exploitation as “slavery” might draw popular outrage but does little to end the acts of cruelty.

“The Anti-Slavery Project did not do away with ideological cleavages and social hierarchies, but instead introduced a qualified claim that even people at the bottom of the social and racial pecking order should not be officially enslaved,” Quirk writes in his book The Anti-Slavery Project: From slave trade to human trafficking.

This might explain the continuation of slavery on the Asian subcontinent or in the Arab states, or for example, in Libya. Last year, it came to light that captured African refugees and migrants to Europe were being sold at an auction in Libya. The incredible “human market”, showcased in videos that went viral on social media, seemed to suggest “slavery” was the apex of indignity faced by the African migrants who were trying to get to Europe.

Not the fascist border regimes, not the breakdown of law and order in Libya, not the unchecked civil war, not the hundreds of drownings in the Mediterranean. It was the inference to “slavery”, as civilisation’s benchmark for disorder, that drew attention to the exploitation of refugees and migrants stuck in Libya. This is superficial, hypocritical and scandalous.

Ending the exploitation of people requires more than trendy slogans and sensationalist headers. We shouldn’t have to describe people as “modern slaves” to get the attention of the broader public.

More than anything else, however, it requires a rethinking of how we treat one another because every part of the economy is driven by greed and geared to exploit.

No amount of polished semantics will change that.

* Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City. He is also the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.