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Shining the Light on Modern Slavery

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Everybody hates it; no one knows what it is.

Slavery. It's so much a part of human history we think we understand it. The chains, the whips, the ships crammed with the dying, it's all there in our common memory. And in so many ways, we've got it wrong.

From the first record scratched into clay tablets 4,000 years ago, slavery has walked with us through time. With every change, every new invention and new way of being, slavery changed too - growing into the global, diverse, creative and complex crime it is today. It infects the internet, it uses ox-carts and 747s, and it brings us what we think we need: electronics, steel, food, the cotton in the shirt on our back, and cheap and malleable servants that can be used anyway we like.

At the heart of all this slavery is violence. To make a thing of a person, to wring work from a child, to crush free will, requires force and trickery and coercion. This much we understand, but how many are caught up in slavery? How do they come to be enslaved in a world where every single country has a law against it?

There's a good reason we haven't known the answers to these questions, and a lot of bad reasons. The people who fight slavery, who go up against the criminals and risk their lives to free others, put everything into liberation. They know a lot about the slaves they help, but they're fighting the disease in individuals, not charting the epidemic.

Meanwhile, most governments don't dig deeply into slavery for a lot of bad reasons. There are exceptions, but many governments don't want to know about people who can't vote, who are hidden away, and are likely to be illegal anyway. The laws are in place, but the tools and resources and the political will are lacking. And since hidden slaves can't be counted it is easy to pretend they don't exist.

That's all about to change with the launch of the Global Slavery Index. The report, released today, reveals there are an estimated 29.8million people trapped into a life of slavery. That is more than 3.5 times the population of London.

In every epidemic there comes a moment when lighting candles and caring for the dying isn't enough. When it becomes clear that without the knowledge of how and why, when and where, the disease will simply spread - leaving suffering in its wake. Slavery is a disease of our common being, an affront to the dignity and autonomy we want for our children and ourselves. We can wipe it out the way we've wiped out smallpox, but good intentions aren't enough, we have to be smart.

Fortunately the time is right for eradication of modern day slavery. Slavery is at an ebb; it is down, but not out. It is vulnerable, and with the right knowledge and tools we can end it. If we are right then the 29.8million slaves in the world today are the smallest fraction of the global population in all of human history. The once vast economic force of slavery is now reduced to a tiny and trivial portion of the global economy. Pushed to the dark corners of society, it can be rooted out and expunged, but to do that we need to know three things.

First, how many slaves exist and where are they? Without that knowledge we can't direct the counter-measures or gauge the progress of eradication. Second, how do they come to be in slavery - what forces, what vulnerabilities, what conditions do we need to change to stop the flow of people into slavery? Third, what works best to tackle the root cause of slavery - Laws? Rescues? Cleaning up supply chains? Every penny counts when the cost of failure is a person who stays in slavery. Money can help solve this problem; effective use of money can solve it more quickly.

That's where we're going. The Global Slavery Index shapes the best answers we can get to these questions today, and will keep refining those answers, year in and year out, until slavery ends. A Global Fund will focus the resources and pinch every penny, and a Global Social Movement will press governments and businesses and each of us to do our bit.

In the 1950s only a few brave idealists believed smallpox could be wiped out. Now it is gone. Today the facts are piling up, the tools are being sharpened, and more than a few idealists believe slavery can end. Imagine a world where the burden of slavery is finally laid down after 5,000 years - where it is so rare that a single case is big news. Imagine millions of freed slaves, their energy and creativity unleashed, building new lives and communities. That's where we're going - want to come?

Professor Kevin Bales, is the Lead Researcher for the Walk Free Foundation Global Slavery Index

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