Modern Slavery and Public Health

By Krista Oehlke


It has been estimated that 80 million people – millions of them children – are enslaved, in varying forms, around the world. Its imprint is all around us. For example, a seminal 2014 Harvard FXB Center report authored by Siddharth Kara exposes the shocking conditions to which young children are exposed in India’s hand-woven carpet industry, a major source of carpets  for the United States. And yet despite its insidiousness and role in numerous supply chains, forced labor remains one of the world’s most invisible problems.

On Tuesday, November 10, anti-trafficking and human rights experts convened in a Forum event at The Harvard Chan School of Public Health to discuss some of the thorny issues that underpin the modern slave trade. A collaboration between PRI’s The World and WGBH, the discussion featured Harvard FXB Center’s Jacqueline Bhabha; Dan Vexeeler, program director at the Freedom Fund; Jocelyn Kelly, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Women in War program; and Martina Vandenberg, of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center.

The panelists focused on the impact of contemporary slavery on public health worldwide, including in cities and rural communities across the US. They also highlighted the particular vulnerability of many adolescents who, lacking a stable social network, sufficient opportunity, and protection, can be easily lured into trafficking circles. “In the United States, we know that children coming out of child welfare are often extremely vulnerable to trafficking, particularly sexual exploitation,” Bhabha said.

Furthermore, in the context of war and violence, the panelists said, profiles of abuse are constantly evolving. As Kelly pointed out, groups like ISIS and Boko Haram are increasingly using slavery as a core tactic. “But this is not hopeless,” said Vanderberg, emphasizing that watershed gains can and have been achieved by bringing large anti-trafficking cases against culpable companies.

Panelists also agreed that a bottom-up, community-centered approach should inform new initiatives, and, moving forward, that it is imperative that stakeholders engage in rigorous data gathering with communities to better understand the nuanced and changing pathways to slavery. Finally, as Vexeeler noted, the private sector can also play an important role, and their partnership should be cultivated.

The hour-long program was moderated by Phillip Martin of WGBH and followed by a brief question and answer session. Readers are encouraged to continue the conversation via twitter (#traffickingforum) and watch the webcast.