the economics of human trafficking & cannabis in the UK


Economics & Human Trafficking

There are 27 million slaves in the world today; more than at any point in human history. This illegal industry generates £120 billion in annual profits.

According to the activist Siddharth Kara, the supply of vulnerable individuals to traffickers is driven by a variety of factors including poverty, lawlessness, military conflict. In the world today, economic instability is driving huge numbers of people to seek alternative or illegal means of employment, making them vulnerable to traffickers.

In the modern slavery industry, the human being is treated like any other commodity - the higher the supply, the lower the price. Staggeringly, adjusting for inflation, the global weighted average price of slaves has fallen from almost £9,000 in 1850 to £330 today. As with any other commodity, as lower price tends to mean more buyers, completing the vicious circle of the modern global slave economy.

Legal prosecution is incredibly at the global level: according to the International Organisation for Migration, risks of conviction are much lower for trafficking humans, than for drugs or arms. 


Cannabis in the uk Context

In recent years there has been a large increase in the amount of cannabis grown in the UK, at the expense of importing the drug from overseas. This shift has seen an explosion in the level of modern slavery in the cannabis black market. It is crucial to keep in mind the legal context of cannabis in the UK. As an illegal Class B drug there is no regulation of its production and sale. The market is therefore entirely controlled by criminal gangs who cause immense harm, not least human trafficking and slavery.

On the supply-side, there is a large profit-potential incentivising the use of slaves; unregulated production technologies are simple and low maintenance and the slaves themselves are of course unpaid. Trafficked individuals are subject to inhumane working conditions and extremely long hours. Conditions vary, but a typical UK cannabis farm is an ordinary house with up to four slaves. Victims will often sleep in the house in the presence of humidity and lighting equipment that can be very damaging to their health, especially the respiratory system. Very commonly slaves are fed no more than once per day.

All of this amounts to minimal upfront costs - around £10,000 per trafficked person. It is estimated that an average-sized three-bedroom house can yield an annual profit of £300,000. 

The UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland has called the UK government's response "a mess." In his words: "In tackling the issue of Vietnamese teenagers being brought to the UK to work on illegal cannabis farms, there has been a lack of urgency and an absence of commitment. In consequence, the industry has ballooned and largely had its way."

However, to only focus on supply would be a mistake – on the other side of the transaction is a consumer. Here the central issue is awareness; in the UK, the way in which cannabis is produced has been absent from the public conversation. More information about any problem is always a good thing.

However, even if consumers were adequately informed, there is the much deeper problem of their lack of control over the market. In a legal, regulated market consumers can influence production decisions, using threat of taking their business elsewhere. In the illegal cannabis market, this cannot happen in the same way. Instead, consumers are typically limited in their choice, both in number of suppliers and availability of connection to such suppliers. Consumers also have no means of obtaining reliable information about the source of the product. Compounding this is the way in which individuals see their role in the market. Consumer decisions are based on how a supplier and its production process are perceived. One need only look at the reaction to Nike’s sweatshop scandal to see this. Likewise, the Modern Slavery Act requires companies to audit their own supply chains and report on the prevalence of slavery within them. If we want similar successes in the area of cannabis production we need two things: First, cannabis must be decriminalised so that the market can be effectively policed and regulated; Second, following decriminalisation we need reliable reporting on cannabis supply chains, so that informed consumers can affect the market through their choices. 


Where do we go From Here?

At the heart of this issue is the human element. It is an unspeakable tragedy that in the modern day so many human beings are being denied basic autonomy both globally and in the UK. Cannabis as a drug and as a culture is tainted by its association with this horrific industry, which, due to our choice to prohibit cannabis use, exists outside of the law. Kevin Hyland has written that the findings summarised here show that people need to think “very carefully” in viewing cannabis as a recreational drug. In one way, he is right – those who consume must indeed think carefully: we all have an obligation to take up the mantle, fight to make a direct change and try to minimise harm until a long-term solution can be found. But therein lies the problem – it is because of the prohibition of cannabis, not because of cannabis, that this suffering happens.