Slavery may not be as prevalent in the U.S. as it was 150 years ago, but that doesn’t mean the practice has been abolished around the world. The State Department estimates that, globally, there are up to 27 million victims of human trafficking, an act defined as the forced performance of a commercial sex act and as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery."
Some countries are more guilty than others in allowing this modern form of slavery to take hold. In its annual report (PDF) on human trafficking, the State Department examines where the situation is worst. There are a lot of countries with work to do: Out of the 185 nations in the report, just 33 completely follow laws intended to abolish the practice.
There are problems even in nations that do follow laws. The report discusses one case in the U.S., for example, where a 12-year-old girl was pimped out by a friend’s older brother, who locked her in a room and beat her daily. In other places, the problem is more systematic: Migrant workers in the Middle East and East Asia are faced with debt bondage and deportation if they ditch their work.
The fishing industry in particular has long harbored human trafficking. In New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone, Indonesians are recruited to work on boats, where they can be abused, forced to work over 18 hours a day, and given little fresh water, food, or medical treatment (when necessary).
The U.S. ranks countries in three tiers: The first consists of countries that fully comply with The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. The second is made up of countries that are actively trying to comply with standards (there is also a Tier 2 watch list). The third is countries that aren’t trying to comply at all.
In general, Africa and the Near East rank the worst, with a number of countries on the Tier 3 list, including Zimbabwe, Sudan, Madagascar, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Algeria. Second tier countries are more spread out, with many in Europe (including Romania, Ukraine, Turkey, Portugal) and the Western Hemisphere (Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Chile). The U.S., of course, is a Tier 1 country--they instituted the tier system in the first place, after all.
Overall, the news is grim. The number of trafficking and slavery victims has risen by 28% in the past year, with 42,291 officially identified. But there are ways to ensure that you aren’t contributing to the problem. Fair-labor nonprofit Verite works with many high-profile companies to ensure they don’t use any forced labor in their supply chains (clients include Apple, Levi Strauss, and Timberland). The company doesn’t have a full list of clients on its website, but you can poke around for hints. And the Slavery Footprint project, which we covered last year, can estimate how many slaves are indirectly working for you.