TY Students from Bray use art to investigate contemporary slavery

“We are Transition Year students from Presentation College, Bray and what we would like to share with you is real and happening now. We and our classmates were shocked and angry upon hearing these facts.”

*This blog was written by Patryk Labuzek, Andrew Dore and Conor Davenport as part of their contemporary slavery wall mural project 2012/13, with support from www.developmenteducation.ie

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Currently, 27 million people are enslaved around the world.

When is enough enough? 50 million? 100 million? Do you even care?

Right now these 27 million people are being oppressed through trafficking, debt bondage, illegal contract labour and prostitution. They are starving so you can eat; exhausted so you can drive and dying so you can live as you currently do.

Slaves may have been involved in any number of the following: brick making, mining, quarrying, prostitution, gem working, jewellery making, cloth and carpet making, domestic service, clearing forests, making charcoal, working in shops, making fireworks, metal goods, harvesting sugar and other foods.  From Ireland, nestled in luxury as one of the top twenty richest countries in the world, we don’t usually see the wounds inflicted on others as a result of our actions. Maybe we just don’t want to see them.

Our world is now a global, interdependent community. What happens to a member of our global community in Africa, India, South-East Asia is as real and as serious as that which happens to our own neighbours. We fool ourselves into thinking that there are no slaves in the developed world, but we are blind. We are surrounded by slaves, even here in Ireland.

All one has to do is a simple Internet search to understand the magnitude of these horrendous violations of human rights.

Slavery: a thing of the past? [back to contents]

We dismiss slavery as a thing of the past. We live in a world where most information is available to us at the click of a button. Our world is a globalized and economically advanced community, yet slavery flourishes! Despite the ease of access to information, how many of us know this:

  • 800,000 human beings will be kidnapped and trafficked this year. 80% of these will be female and 50% will be children. Many of which will be sold into the Sex Trade.
  • The 27 million people who are enslaved at this very moment represent the greatest number of people to have ever lived in slavery. 27 million people is more than the total figure of all people trafficked during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade with which we are so familiar.
  • It has been estimated that about 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States of America as slaves each year. Another fact: about 17,000 murders occur in the U.S.A. each year. The success rate of solving murder cases has been estimated at about 70% and the success rate for solving human trafficking cases has been estimated at about 1%.
  • The U.S government spent US$200 million on the prevention human trafficking in 2006. In the same year, US$12 billion was spent on federal drug enforcement.

Why is slavery thriving? [back to contents]

Should we blame the slave masters, pimps, traffickers or the societies in which we live – the target market for slave trade profiting? If we don’t demand, they won’t supply.

Slavery is BIG business. In fact, it’s the third largest (or profitable!) criminal activity after illicit arms and drugs trading. The worldwide profits made from the exploitation of all trafficked labour is currently estimated to be US$ 31.6 billion every year. Of this, the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking states that 49% (or US$ 15 billion) is generated in industrialized economies.

A 2003 study revealed that a single slave in the Netherlands earned her pimp over US$250,000 a year. Yet fines of less than US$2 are common for those convicted of slaveholding in India. In 1990, a Dinka boy in Sudan could be purchased for as little as US$15.

A bargain is a bargain, right?

There is a common thread emerging in our world today best characterized as a ferocious search for cheaper goods and services.

Consumers want cheaper products and businesses want to make more profit. This makes sense. But at what point does the cheapest product and the biggest profit affect human dignity? The “cheapest source” very well may involve the enslavement of human beings.

Perhaps the complex chain of production now associated with many common products lacks the transparency we need to make informed judgments about the integrity of these products vis-a-vis the impact on people’s human rights. Some of the common factors contributing to the global slave industry include poverty, educational opportunity, poor or lack of access to health care, gender discrimination, systemic corruption and racial inequality.

Types of slavery [back to contents]

Debt Bondage
The most prevalent and probably least known form of slavery is Debt Bondage, accounting for nearly 20 million of the people in slavery globally. This is where a person becomes enslaved as repayment for a small loan, often only about the equivalent of ten or twenty euro! This loan may have been to pay for basic medical care not freely available, funeral or even wedding arrangements. The borrower is trapped into working for little or no pay, often for seven days a week. These ‘loan sharks’ often thrive in areas of high innumeracy and illiteracy rates, exploiting this vulnerability by distorting or falsifying figures of interest rates and debts owed.
Bonded Labour
Bonded Labour is enforced by threat, violence and imprisonment. It is often made clear that should someone ever try to escape, they will be hunted down and beaten. This can even be facilitated with the assistance of corrupt law enforcers, in some cases. If someone does escape where there is little access to micro-finance or credit, inevitable financial burdens could work to re-enslave this person. Routinely, in order to maintain control, the trafficker can end up beating or abusing these people or threaten to do so if they don’t work at the demanded pace.
Contract Slavery
Contract Slavery is a relatively modern form of slavery, where a worker is deceived into slavery through the use of a false employment contract. Slave holders create contracts to lure individuals with promises of employment, yet once they arrive at the workplace they are forced to work for no pay and cannot escape. The false contracts are used to avoid criminal charges or to prove that a “debt” is owed to the slaveholder. The work places they advertise may include restaurants, charcoal work and domestic work, amongst others.This slavery has been particularly prevalent in Brazil.The recruiters, known as Gatos in Brazil, bring the slaves to charcoal manufacturing sites in the depths of the Amazon, far from their families. If they leave, they have no way of returning. This charcoal is used to make steel that is typically used in the car industry.For more info on goods produced as a result of forced labour and child labour see Anti-Slavery International’s products of slavery visualisation map.
Human Trafficking
Human Trafficking is where people are illegally traded around the world or within borders, commonly to be sold into the commercial sex industry or forced into manual labour. These people are forced to work against their will under the threat of violence, deception or coercion.
Chattel – derived from the French word for “cattle” – is one of the oldest and rarest forms of slavery. When someone thinks of slavery they think of this form, otherwise known as descent based slavery. It describes a situation where people are either born into a slave class/caste or from a ‘group’ viewed as being in slavery by other members of their society. Chattel slave masters ‘own’ their slaves in much the same way a farmer owns their cattle. A person enslaved can be bought, inherited or traded for camels, cars and weapons.This kind of slavery is mainly associated with Mauritania and other parts of Northern Africa (such as Niger and Mali) and although slavery is illegal in these countries, escaped slaves may be returned to their masters by law enforcement officers.

Sex slaves and labour exploitation today [back to contents]

In the sex industry, human trafficking is often carried out in a form of contract labour.

Sexual exploitation is a form of slavery, in which individuals are coerced into sexual acts. Essentially, a person is treated like property, in which the person acting as having “right of ownership” exposes someone to rape or sexual abuse. The victim may be forced into sexual acts with the captor, with other people, or forced in to a position of servitude, marriage, or other activities involving a sexual component. When a person is sold to another for these purposes, it is called sex trafficking, which is a form of human trafficking (This definition is sourced from The Band Back Together Project).

Today, sexual exploitation is by far the most commonly identified form of human trafficking (79%) followed by forced labour (18%), whereas the large scale transatlantic slave trade, for example, was mainly for the purpose of forced labour. The victims of sexual exploitation are predominantly women and girls. Surprisingly, in 30% of the countries which provided information on the gender of traffickers, women make up the largest proportion of traffickers. In some parts of the world, women trafficking women is the norm.

This testimonial extract from a woman is a typical experience for many women forced into sex work, recalling how she was trafficked into the UK for this purpose:

Louisiana (26, Lithuanian) was a victim of human trafficking. She saw an advert for cleaning and waitressing jobs in the UK, and travelled to England with a man from the job agency. “I had my own passport. But when we arrived he took my passport away and told me I had to work as a prostitute. He said I owed him money for the travel and I would pay him back this way.”

Human trafficking doesn’t consist of sex slavery alone – almost a third of all human trafficking is used for labour exploitation, for example; in agriculture, catering and packing and processing. It could contribute to the food we eat and the packaging it comes in.

It is estimated that at any one time, there are as many as 2.5 million people in the world who are in forced labour (including sexual exploitation) as a result of being trafficked.

The mural [back to contents]

Nine point explanation of the mural:

  1. Girl on top left – trafficked child – note scratch marks on wood beside her – counting days. This is consolidated by text ‘stolen and trafficked’ – stolen also relates to stolen youth.
  2. “We are not for you” is connects the viewer with slaves. This is giving victims a voice as well as highlighting the responsibility of the viewers to respond to this statement.
  3. Girl crushing rocks on bottom left relates to debt bondage
  4. Child in centre looking for food relates to causes of slavery and development issues – poverty
  5. Skulls at the bottom refer to the incidence of death as a result of slavery – particularly in sex trafficking as a result of AIDS. The “XXX” reinforces this reference.
  6. Policeman with the baton references the role of a corrupt police force in some regions to assist the continuation of the slave trade.
  7. Hand with the charcoal/rocks in the top right refers to contract slavery – especially with the picture of the contract below on which is written the word ‘greed’.
  8. Gavel represents justice and the responsibility of the global community
  9. Coins at the bottom behind the gavel represent the huge wealth earned from global slavery
Case study: Uzbekistan’s cotton pickers [back to contents]
It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people are forced to pick cotton every year in Uzbekistan.Uzbekistan is one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world, yet in spite of the profits gained by the Uzbek government, the workers are paid little if anything.Approximately half of all cotton is picked by state-sponsored forced labour. The harvest season begins in September and most rural schools are closed. The would-be students are forced to pick cotton to make up for the low numbers of adults picking. Each picker has to fill a 50-kilogram quota each day. Every child is left exhausted and many suffer from malnutrition as a result of the hard labour. They work in the searing heat and handle harmful chemicals that burn their skin.Unlike other countries where forced labour is prevalent, the Government systematically organizes this cotton picking. When confronted, however, the Government denies that they force the workers; stating that the workers volunteer out of loyalty. Source: Slavery in the Uzbek Cotton Industry by Antislavery.org

What is to be done? Ending slavery in our lifetime [back to contents]

Slavery is a problem that we can all help to prevent in our day-to-day lives. Next time you go into a shop ask yourself, where does this come from? Why is this so cheap? Be sure to buy fair-trade products whenever possible. Find out first where products come from before and if they have been made through forced labour buying them.

Use the Products of Slavery mapping tool to stay informed.

Raising global awareness to spot signs of slavery

We need to urgently raise awareness in all countries around the world so people can spot the signs of slavery and be able to report it to the authorities. The Blue Blindfold campaign in Ireland, run by the Department of Justice and Equality seeks to teach the public how to spot the signs for someone who has been trafficked, give details on Ireland’s response to prevent and combat people being trafficked (such as legislation in place, compare with the international response) and to provide key statistics on those areas.

Over 65 national and community organisations formed an alliance on ending prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland in the Turn off the Red Light campaign. Take action to find out what your local representative and senators are doing to combat slavery in Ireland. An update on the progress of the campaign can be found here.

At the global level, the Free the Slaves movement believes that the United Nations Security Council should do four things to end slavery:

1. The Secretary-General should appoint a Special Representative for Slavery and Human Trafficking. The Special Representative should be charged with preparing for a meeting of the Security Council concentrating on contemporary slavery.

2. The Permanent Members of the Security Council should contribute funds and resources to the Special Representative to ensure that she or he can really attack slavery worldwide.

3. The Security Council should appoint a committee of experts to review the existing conventions on slavery and recommend how to unify and clarify these conventions, as well as coordinate and improve the UN’s programmatic response to slavery.

4. The Security Council should establish a commission to determine how the existing UN inspection mandate could be applied to slavery. When that commission comes back with a resolution to form an inspectorate for the slavery and human trafficking conventions, then there would, at long last, be teeth in the UN’s work on slavery.

Human rights are rights for everyone – not just privileges

While Europe is seen as a human rights friendly region with strong protections, the reality is that 49% of profits from the modern slave trade are made in human rights friendly and affluent countries such as Ireland.

Human rights principles are important, but only by facing up to the practices of human rights wrongs can we ever fully stop slavery. Ireland’s recent experience, with the government’s public apology last month to the 10,000 women and girls incarcerated in Catholic Church-run laundries where they were treated as virtual slaves, is testament to the power of people to set an antislavery agenda at home.

Paying the price to end slavery

How could you or I stop this injustice? Free The Slaves estimates that slavery all over the world could come to an end within 25 years at a cost of €25 billion – almost €57 billion was spent in 2009 on carbonated soft drinks in the USA alone.

It is our responsibility as compassionate members of our global community to make noise about these issues. By making noise we may be heard by those who have the power and capacity to make economic, legislative, political and ethical changes. Let us continue in the footsteps of slavery abolition campaigner William Wilberforce and finally finish what he and his many supporters began so many years ago.


The slavery mural project was delivered with the assistance of CSPE & Religion teacher Elaine Brennan and art teacher Clifton Rooney in Presentation College, Bray. Read Clifton’s blog on exploring modern slavery from a teacher’s perspective based on the mural project.

The TY students’ mural is currently touring Ireland in schools across the country to teach others about slavery and has featured in local press (Bray People news pickup) as well as the SpunOut.ie,  Immigrant Council of Ireland and The Irish Catholic. More images of the mural are available from the school website’s online gallery.


Background information [back to contents]


  • The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery adopted by the UN is marked every year on the 2nd December | https://www.un.org/en/events/slaveryabolitionday/ | the day also remembers  those that were emancipated from the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade over 200 years ago


  • A crime so Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery | 2009 | by E. Benjamin Skinner
  • Disposable People: new slavery in the global economy | 2012 | by Kevin Bales
  • Modern Slavery: the secret world of 27 million people | 2009 | by Kevin Bales, Zoe Trodd & Alex Williamson
  • Enslaved True Stories of Modern Day Slavery | 2008 | edited by Jesse Sage and Liora Kasten


  • I am slave | 2010 | directed by Gabriel Range
  • ‘Amistad’ | 1997 | by Steven Spielberg