THE BLOG
05/22/2014 01:46 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

Putting Slavery Out of Business

We have long known that modern slavery was extensive and hugely profitable. But the latest authoritative report from the International Labor Organization shows that we have been badly under-estimating just what big business this evil is.

The ILO report, published on Tuesday, estimates that forced labor in its various forms generates a shocking $150 billion in profits a year. That's three times more than the respected organization had previously thought.

To give you some idea of how big this sum is, it is well over 10 times the annual profits of the entire global airline industry, or three times the total global sales of Coca-Cola.

They are profits made from the lives of many millions of our fellow human beings -- children, women and men -- forced to work against their wills through fear or violence.

Because modern slavery exists in the shadows, it is difficult to accurately estimate just how many people are trapped in these nightmare lives.

But according to the ILO, there were at least 21 million modern slaves in the world in 2012. The Global Slavery Index, published last year, estimates that 30 million live in slavery.

Almost two-thirds of the huge profits from forced labor comes from commercial sexual exploitation - the form of modern slavery found in every country.

But the report also found profits from forced labor in industries as varied as fishing and sweatshops, mining and domestic servitude.

The truth is that while slavery is illegal in every country in the world, it exists everywhere and touches us all -- in the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the products we buy.

It is easy when faced with criminal activity so widespread and ingrained in our societies -- and where those behind this repugnant activity have so much to lose -- to feel pessimistic about rooting it out.

There is, however, no reason for despair. From the successful efforts of consumers, companies and governments to reduce child labor in West Africa's cocoa plantations to the concerted drive to tackle the child sex trade in Southeast Asia, the evidence is clear that this evil can be tackled if the political and business will exists.

The ILO report itself sets out a series of sensible policies including a crackdown on loan sharks, investment in education and skills training for those most at risk of forced labor and tackling the abuse of migrant workers.

There is, in fact, a lot of good work already going on at the national and local level, but it is frequently fragmented and lacking in funding. To fight slavery effectively, we need to better mobilize the capital and knowledge needed to end it. And we need to do much better at identifying and investing in the most effective frontline efforts to end slavery.

We also need a modern abolitionist movement to encourage governments and business to focus on eliminating this evil. Governments must prioritize implementation of the laws that already exist and better support victims of slavery. They must also pass legislation requiring companies to be more transparent about their efforts to respond to slavery.

Business can make a huge difference in the fight against slavery. They should ensure their operations are free from slavery, along with those of their suppliers and their suppliers' suppliers. Then they should take action to ensure anti-slavery policies are implemented in their supply chains all the way to source.

Modern slavery is obscenely profitable. But it's also illegal everywhere, and abhorrent -- and with sufficient political will and ambition, we can put it out of business.