Price of Human Beings Reaches Historic Low

With more and more Americans struggling to afford basics like food, housing, and health care, one globally-traded commodity is more affordable today that it’s ever been before. Unfortunately, that commodity is human beings. And it’s no coincidence that the price of a slave has significantly dropped as the price of food, medicine, and housing has increased.

At a recent panel lecture in Boston, abolitionist scholar Zoe Trodd stated that the average price of a slave in 2010 is about $40. That’s compared to the cost of a slave in 1840, which in today’s dollars would have been between $30,000 and $50,00 — as much as a brand new luxury car. Even just ten years ago, experts estimated that the global average for buying a human being was closer to $100 or $200. And, now, it’s cheaper in many parts of the world to buy a human being than it is to buy an iPod shuffle.

It’s not happenstance that the price of a slave has dropped during a global recession, nor that such a drop has coincided with more expensive food, housing, and other basic necessities in many parts of the world, including the U.S. Slavery, like other industries, follows the economic law of supply and demand. The supply of potential slaves grows when the number of people vulnerable to slavery because of desperate social or economic circumstances grows. When, during a recession like the one we are in, increased numbers of people become homeless, hungry, and otherwise in desperate need of money, the supply of potential slaves grows, driving down the price.

The other side of that equation, however, is the demand side. In traditional industries where everyone wants the goods in question to be sold, the answer to a glut of supply is to find a way to drive up the demand for that product (i.e., the U.S. making everything out of corn to use up corn surpluses). But when it comes to slavery, we don’t want anyone selling the “product,” because the product is human beings. So, we want to drive demand for the slavery so low that even with a surplus supply, traffickers can’t make money selling people. Because when the price of a slave is $40 and the profit that slave can make for a slaveholder is $400 or $4000, that slave looks like a good investment. But when the profit that slave can make is $0, there is no economic incentive to enslave that person.

So how do we drive down demand? We don’t use any goods or services provided by slaves. That means we don’t buy products made by forced and child laborers in factories overseas. It means we don’t eat fruit, chocolate, or chicken harvested or processed by slaves. It means we don’t buy sex acts or watch pornography made from trafficked women or children. Of course, the challenge comes in the “how”: How do I know which strawberries weren’t picked by enslaved farm workers? Is this stripper working here of her own free will? Can I trace all the components of my cell-phone back to slave-free factories and mines?

The “how” won’t be easy. But if we’re all committed to the “what” of ending demand for slavery, we can figure out the “how” piece by piece. We can take simple steps like asking the companies we buy from to make their supply chains transparent and taking a stand against a culture which ignores child sexual exploitation. And maybe in the next ten years the price of a human being won’t exist, because a human being will be one product no one is buying.

Photo credit: A. Strakey



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