In the middle of a recession, it can feel like everything is more expensive. But the price of slaves has actually dropped over 450% since the days of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 1850, the average price of a slave was the equivalent of $40,000 in today’s dollars. Today, the average price of a slave is $90, with some being sold for as little as $5 or $10. That means that 160 years ago, buying a slave was a similar financial commitment to buying a brand new car today. In 2010, however, buying a slave is the same level of financial commitment as buying a first generation iPhone.
At the recent TED conference, leading anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales pointed out the incredible price drop that has taken place over the past century in the price of slaves. But why is it so much cheaper to buy a slave than it used to be? First, there are a lot more people in the world today. In fact, many estimates indicate that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before, even though they represent a smaller percentage of the overall population. 20th century population booms across the world created more vulnerable people to be enslaved than ever before.
Second, slavery is now an equal opportunity industry — almost. For most of the history of slavery, only certain ethnic or religious groups have been enslaved, like Africans brought to the U.S. Today, however, people of all races and ethnicities can become modern-day slaves. Though like many social problems, this one also disproportionally affects people of color. Including more people of all races in the net of potential slaves has increased the supply of potential slaves. But supply is only half the equation.
The other half is the demand for slave-made goods and labor. Global manufacturing has changed drastically since 1850 (even since 1950), moving to a model where many goods produced for the U.S. are made outside the U.S. Consumer demand for cheap goods puts pressure on companies to keep costs down, even at the expense of wages, rights, and freedom of workers overseas. Similarly, consumer demand for services from food preparation to house cleaning to nannying to office cleaning have gone up higher than what we are willing to pay. And traffickers step in to fill the void. Demand for commercial sex has the same affect, as it inspires traffickers to force women and children into prostitution when more men want to buy sex than women want to sell it.
You and I might not be able to do much about the supply of potential slaves (other than support population control), but we can sure do a lot about the demand. We can stop demand cheap consumer products made at the expense of workers who aren’t paid a fair wage or given basic rights. We can stop demanding commercial sex, especially with younger and younger girls. We can vote with our dollars an buy products which support an end to slavery and fair and respectful treatment of workers. And if the demand for slavery goes away, then the market for slavery will as will. And in 2050, slaves won’t have a price because there will be on one around to buy them.
Photo credit: bendeming