Contemporary slavery

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Modern incidence of slavery, as a percentage of the population, by country. Estimates from the Walk Free Foundation. Estimates by sources with broader definitions of slavery will 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 12 million[1] to 29 million.[2][3][4][5]

Modern slavery is a multi-billion 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.[6] The Global Slavery Index 2013 states that 10 nations account for 76 per cent of the world's enslaved. India has the most slaves of any country, at 14 million (over 1% of the population). China has the second-largest number with 2.9 million slaves, followed by Pakistan with 2.1 million, Nigeria with 701,000, Ethiopia with 651,000, Russia with 516,000, Thailand with 473,000, Congo with 462,000, Myanmar with 384,000, and Bangladesh with 343,000.[7]

Mauritania was the last nation to officially abolish slavery, doing so in 2007; yet 4.3% of the population still remains enslaved.[7][8] Despite being illegal in every nation; slavery is still prevalent in many forms today.

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]


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.[9]

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 born by the slave rather than the owner, it is a negative externality and leads to over-use of slaves in these situations.[9]

Modern slavery can be quite profitable[10] and corrupt governments will 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,[11] though profits are substantially lower. American slaves in 1809 were sold for around $40,000 (in today's money)[citation needed]. Today, a slave can be bought for $90.[12] 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 freedoms and the rule of law, and which have poor societal structure can create an environment that fosters the acceptance and propagation of slavery.[citation needed]

Types of modern or contemporary, slavery[edit]

Slavery by descent[edit]

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, particularly in Mauritania, where governments may deny that it exists.

Bonded labor[edit]

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.

Forced migrant labor[edit]

People may be enticed to migrate with the promise of work, only to have their documents seized and to be forced to work under the threat of violence to them or their families.[13] Illegal 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.

International boundaries[edit]

Main article: Piracy in Somalia

Piracy, an ongoing issue in countries like Somalia, terrorize international water boundaries to invade massive cargo ships, seeking goods and crew members. Pirates force any crew members brought back to work on their ships. In the United States thousands of immigrants, primarily from neighboring countries south of the border, are brought in to work for wages as low as $0.23 per hour.

Sex slavery[edit]

Main article: Sexual slavery

Along with migrant slavery, forced prostitution is the form of slavery most often encountered in wealthy countries 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.

Early/forced marriage[edit]

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.[citation needed]

Child labor[edit]

See also: Child labour and restavec

Children comprise the majority of slaves today.[citation needed] 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 be used as child soldiers. Forced child labor is the dominant form of slavery in Haiti.


Main article: Human trafficking

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."[14] 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.[12]

Wage labor[edit]

The labor market, as institutionalised under the often criticised capitalist economic system, has been criticised[15] as a modern extension of slavery, especially by both mainstream socialists and anarcho-syndicalists,[16][17][18][19] who utilise the term wage slavery[20][21] as a pejorative for wage labour. Socialists draw parallels between the trade of labour as a commodity and slavery. Cicero is also known to have suggested such parallels.[22]

For Marxists, labour-as-commodity, which is how they regard wage labour,[23] provides an absolutely fundamental point of attack against capitalism.[24] "It can be persuasively argued," noted one concerned philosopher, "that the conception of the worker's labour as a commodity confirms Marx's stigmatization of the wage system of private capitalism as 'wage-slavery;' that is, as an instrument of the capitalist's for reducing the worker's condition to that of a slave, if not below it."[25]

As per anthropologist David Graeber, the earliest wage labour contracts we know about were in fact contracts for the rental of chattel slaves (usually the owner would receive a share of the money, and the slave, another, with which to maintain his or her living expenses.) Such arrangements, according to Graeber, were quite common in New World slavery as well, whether in the United States or Brazil. C. L. R. James argued that most of the techniques of human organisation employed on factory workers during the industrial revolution were first developed on slave plantations.[26]

Some criticise wage slavery on strictly contractual grounds, e.g. David Ellerman and Carole Pateman, arguing that the employment contract is a legal fiction in that it treats human beings juridically as mere tools or inputs by abdicating responsibility and self-determination, which the critics argue are inalienable. As Ellerman points out, "[t]he employee is legally transformed from being a co-responsible partner to being only an input supplier sharing no legal responsibility for either the input liabilities [costs] or the produced outputs [revenue, profits] of the employer's business."[27] Such contracts are inherently invalid "since the person remain[s] a de facto fully capacitated adult person with only the contractual role of a non-person" as it is impossible to physically transfer self-determination.[28] As Pateman argues:

The contractarian argument is unassailable all the time it is accepted that abilities can 'acquire' an external relation to an individual, and can be treated as if they were property. To treat abilities in this manner is also implicitly to accept that the 'exchange' between employer and worker is like any other exchange of material property . . . The answer to the question of how property in the person can be contracted out is that no such procedure is possible. Labour power, capacities or services, cannot be separated from the person of the worker like pieces of property.[29]

It should, however, be noted that the trade of labor for wages is fundamentally different from slavery in that the trade occurs by consent of both parties, the employee being able to refuse to take employment or, having taken employment, to quit. It is also different in that it grants the employer no authority to starve, torture, physically punish, or sell the employee or members of the employee's family, but only to refuse to continue the trade by firing the employee.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Forced labour – Themes". Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  2. ^ a b 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". Retrieved 2010-08-29. 
  6. ^ Bradford, Laurence (23 July 2013). "Modern day slavery in Southeast Asia: Thailand and Cambodia". Inside Investor. Retrieved 24 July 2013. 
  7. ^ a b "Millions in modern-day slavery, half in India: Survey". The Hindu. October 13, 2013. 
  8. ^ "Mauritanian MPs pass slavery law". Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  9. ^ a b Bryan Caplan. "Economics of Slavery Lecture Notes". Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  10. ^ Siddarth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
  11. ^ "Economic Roots of Trafficking in the UNECE Region". UNECE. Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  12. ^ a b "Economics and Slavery". Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  13. ^ Hodal, Kate; Chris Kelly and 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." 
  14. ^ "Introduction - Trafficking in Persons Report". US Department of State. Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  15. ^ Ellerman 1992.
  16. ^ Thompson 1966, p. 599.
  17. ^ Thompson 1966, p. 912.
  18. ^ Ostergaard 1997, p. 133.
  19. ^ Lazonick 1990, p. 37.
  20. ^ "wage slave". Retrieved 4 March 2013. 
  21. ^ "wage slave". Retrieved 4 March 2013. 
  22. ^ "...vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery." – De Officiis [1]
  23. ^ Marx 1990, p. 1006: "[L]abour-power, a commodity sold by the worker himself."
  24. ^ Another one, of course, being the capitalists' theft from workers via surplus-value.
  25. ^ Nelson 1995, p. 158. This Marxist objection is what motivated Nelson's essay, which argues that labour is not, in fact, a commodity.
  26. ^ Graeber 2004, p. 37.
  27. ^ Ellerman 2005, p. 16.
  28. ^ Ellerman 2005, p. 14.
  29. ^ Ellerman 2005, p. 32.
• Free the Slaves

The Center of the Modern American Abolitionist Movement inspired by Kevin Bales' book, Disposable People, works to abolish slavery worldwide.

• The CNN Freedom Project

is a year-long humanitarian news media campaign launched by CNN and CNN International in 2011 to "end modern-day slavery" and related illegal practices, including human trafficking.

• The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR)

was a functional commission within the overall framework of the United Nations from 1946 until it was replaced by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006. It was a subsidiary body of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and was also assisted in its work by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). It was the UN's principal mechanism and international forum concerned with the promotion and protection of human rights.

External links[edit]