Contemporary slavery

Modern incidence of slavery, as a percentage of the population, by country. These estimates are from the Walk Free Foundation. Estimates by sources with broader definitions of slavery are be higher.

Contemporary slavery, also known as modern slavery, refers to the institutions of slavery that continue to exist in the present day. Estimates of the number of slaves today range from around 21 million[1]-29 million[2][3][4][5] to 46 million.[6][7]

Modern slavery is a multibillion-dollar industry with estimates of up to $35 billion generated annually. The United Nations estimates that roughly 27 to 30 million individuals are currently caught in the slave trade industry.[8] India has the most slaves of any country, at roughly 18.4 million.[9] China is second with 3.4 million slaves, followed by Pakistan (2.1 million), Bangladesh (1.5 million), and Uzbekistan (1.2 million). By percentages of the population living in slavery, North Korea tops with 4.4% (about 1.1 million people out of 25 million), followed by Uzbekistan (4% of its population), Cambodia (1.6%), India, (1.4%) and Qatar (1.4%).[7]

Mauritania was the last nation to officially abolish slavery, doing so in 2007; yet 4.3% of the population still remains enslaved.[10] Despite being illegal in every nation, slavery is still present in several forms today.

Slavery also exists in advanced democratic nations, for example the UK where Home Office estimates suggest 10,000 to 13,000 victims. This includes, forced work of various kinds, such as forced prostitution.[11] The UK has recently made an attempt to combat modern slavery via the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Large commercial organisations are now required to publish a slavery and human trafficking statement in regard to their supply chains for each financial year. People who work jobs for little or no personal gain at the expense of their quality of life are considered slaves by anarchists.[12] The movement to increase the minimum wage is a manifestation of a more moderate form of this public outcry.


The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons agency of the United States Department of State says that "“modern slavery,” “trafficking in persons,” and “human trafficking” have been used as umbrella terms for the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion." Besides these, a number of different terms is used in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, including “involuntary servitude”, “slavery” or “practices similar to slavery”, “debt bondage”, and “forced labor”.[13]

According to American professor Kevin Bales, co-founder and former president of Free the Slaves, modern slavery occurs "when a person is under control of another person, who applies violence and force to maintain that control, and the goal of that control is exploitation."[14] According to this definition, research from the Walk Free Foundation based on its Global Slavery Index 2016 estimated that there were about 45.8 million slaves around the world in 2016, with 58% of them living in the top five countries—India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan.[14] Bales warned that, because slavery is officially abolished everywhere, the practice is illegal, and thus more hidden from the public and authorities. This makes it is impossible to obtain exact figures from primary sources. The best that can be done is estimate based on secondary sources, such as UN investigations, newspaper articles, government reports, and figures from NGOs.[14]


Slaves can be an attractive investment because the slave-owner only needs to pay for sustenance and enforcement. This is sometimes lower than the wage-cost of free labourers, as free workers earn more than sustenance; in these cases slaves have positive price. When the cost of sustenance and enforcement exceeds the wage rate, slave-owning would no longer be profitable, and owners would simply release their slaves. Slaves are thus a more attractive investment in high-wage environments, and environments where enforcement is cheap, and less attractive in environments where the wage-rate is low and enforcement is expensive.[15]

Free workers also earn compensating differentials, whereby they are paid more for doing unpleasant work. Neither sustenance nor enforcement costs rise with the unpleasantness of the work, however, so slaves' costs do not rise by the same amount. As such, slaves are more attractive for unpleasant work, and less for pleasant work. Because the unpleasantness of the work is not internalised, being borne by the slave rather than the owner, it is a negative externality and leads to over-use of slaves in these situations.[15] Slaves can also be forced to do illegal work like pick pocketing, or cannabis production.[16]

Modern slavery can be quite profitable[17] and corrupt governments tacitly allow it, despite it being outlawed by international treaties such as Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery and local laws. Total annual revenues of traffickers were estimated in 2004 to range from US $5 billion to US $9 billion,[18] though profits are substantially lower. American slaves in 1809 were sold for around $40,000 (in today's money). Today, a slave can be bought for $90.[19] The conscription of child soldiers by some governments is often viewed as a form of government-endorsed slavery.

Modern slavery is often seen as a by-product of poverty. Countries that lack education, economic freedom, the rule of law, and have poor societal structure can create an environment that fosters the acceptance and propagation of slavery.

Professor Remington Crawford III of the University of Toronto said:

Slavery is something that's with us always. 'We need to keep it in view and think about it when we buy our clothes, to question where they are sourced. Governments and CEOs need to think more carefully about what they are doing and what they are inadvertently supporting.[2]

Types of contemporary slavery

Slavery by descent

This is the form most often associated with the word "slavery". It stems historically from either conquest, where a conquered person is enslaved, as in the Roman Empire, or from slave raiding, as in the Atlantic slave trade. The enslaved become their own social class, or caste, one that may suffer discrimination long after they've been freed.This form of slavery is prevalent in the Sahel, where governments may deny that it exists.

Bonded labor

Main article: Debt bondage

Millions of people today work as bonded laborers. The cycle begins when people take extreme loans under the condition that they work off the debt. The "loan" is designed so that it can never be paid off, and is often passed down for generations. This form of slavery is prevalent in South Asia. People become trapped in this system working ostensibly towards repayment though they are often forced to work far past the original amount they owe. They work under the force of threats and abuse, their helplessness is reinforced due to the large power differential between the 'creditor' and the 'debtor'.

Forced migrant labor

People may be enticed to migrate with the promise of work, only to have their documents seized and be forced to work under the threat of violence to them or their families.[20] Undocumented immigrants may also be taken advantage of; without legal residency, they often have no recourse to the law. Along with sex slavery this is the form of slavery most often encountered in wealthy countries such as the United States, in Western Europe, and in the Middle East.

Sex slavery

Main article: Sexual slavery

Along with migrant slavery, forced prostitution is the form of slavery most often encountered in wealthy regions such as the United States, in Western Europe, and in the Middle East. It is the primary form of slavery in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, particularly in Moldova and Laos. Many child sex slaves are trafficked from these areas to the West and Middle East. An estimated 22% of slaves to date are active in the sex industry.[21]

Early or forced marriage

Main article: Bride-buying

Mainly driven by the culture in certain regions, early or forced marriage is a form of slavery that affects millions of women and girls all over the world. When families cannot support their children, the daughters are often married off to the males of wealthier, more powerful families. These men are often significantly older than the girls. The females are forced into lives whose main purpose is to serve their husbands. This oftentimes fosters an environment for physical, verbal and sexual abuse.

Child labor

See also: Child labour and restavec

Children comprise about 26% of the slaves today.[22] Most are domestic workers or work in cocoa, cotton or fishing industries. Many are trafficked and sexually exploited. In war-torn countries, children have been kidnapped and sold to political parties to use as child soldiers. Forced child labor is the dominant form of slavery in Haiti.


Main article: Human trafficking

The United Nations have defined human trafficking as follows:

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.[23]

According to United States Department of State data, an "estimated 600,000 to 820,000 men, women, and children [are] trafficked across international borders each year, approximately 70 percent are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors. The data also illustrates that the majority of transnational victims are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation."[24] However, "the alarming enslavement of people for purposes of labor exploitation, often in their own countries, is a form of human trafficking that can be hard to track from afar." It is estimated that 50,000 people are trafficked every year in the United States.[19]

Governmental efforts against slavery

The governments with the strongest response to modern slavery are the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom (There are accusations that the English and Welsh police do too little.[25]), Sweden, Australia, Portugal, Croatia, Spain, Belgium and Norway.[9]

In contrast, the governments taking the least action against it are North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Hong Kong, Central African Republic, Papua New Guinea, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.[9]

See also


  1. "Forced labour – Themes". Archived from the original on 2010-02-09. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
  2. 1 2 Andrew Forrest signs up religious forces to fight slavery and trafficking
  3. Bales, Kevin (1999). "1". Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. University of California Press. p. 9. ISBN 0-520-21797-7.
  4. E. Benjamin Skinner (2010-01-18). "sex trafficking in South Africa: World Cup slavery fear". Retrieved 2010-08-29.
  5. "UN Chronicle | Slavery in the Twenty-First Century" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-08-29.
  6. 46 million people living as slaves, latest global index reveals, The Guardian
  7. 1 2 Where the World’s Slaves Live, The Atlantic
  8. Bradford, Laurence (23 July 2013). "Modern day slavery in Southeast Asia: Thailand and Cambodia". Inside Investor. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
  9. 1 2 3 India Tops Global Slavery Index With 18.35 Million People Enslaved, Huffington Post
  10. "Mauritanian MPs pass slavery law". 9 August 2007. Retrieved 2013-08-18.
  11. 'Oliver Twist' children used in crime, warns anti-slavery commissioner
  12. "Evasion" (PDF). CrimeTheInc.
  13. "What is Modern Slavery?". Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  14. 1 2 3 Maral Noshad Sharifi (8 June 2016). "'Er zijn 45,8 miljoen moderne slaven'". NRC Handelsblad (in Dutch). Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  15. 1 2 Bryan Caplan. "Economics of Slavery Lecture Notes". Retrieved 2013-08-18.
  17. Siddarth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
  18. "Economic Roots of Trafficking in the UNECE Region". UNECE. Retrieved 2012-07-08.
  19. 1 2 "Economics and Slavery" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-08-18.
  20. Hodal, Kate; Chris Kelly; Felicity Lawrence (2014-06-10). "Revealed: Asian slave labour producing prawns for supermarkets in US, UK". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 June 2014. Fifteen migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia also told how they had been enslaved.
  21. "ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour 2012: Results and Methodology". Retrieved 2015-10-05.
  22. "ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour 2012: Results and Methodology". Retrieved 2015-10-05.
  23. martin.margesin. "What is Human Trafficking?". Retrieved 2015-10-05.
  24. "Introduction - Trafficking in Persons Report". US Department of State. Retrieved 2013-08-18.
  25. Modern slavery: England and Wales police investigating 'too few' cases BBC

External links

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