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 around 21 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 percent 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.

Slavery also exists on a smaller scale 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.[9] 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.


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.[10]

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.[10]

Modern slavery can be quite profitable[11] 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,[12] 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.[13] 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]

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[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. 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[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.[14] 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.

Sex slavery[edit]

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.[15]

Early or 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 about 26% of the slaves today.[16] 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.


In the early 21st century some scholars[17] had noted an "ominous and disturbing development" of "reopening" of the issue of slavery by some conservative Islamic scholars[18] after its "closing" earlier in the 20th century.[19] In 2003 Shaykh Saleh Al-Fawzan, a member at that time of the Senior Council of Clerics, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, issued a fatwa stating “Slavery is a part of Islam. Slavery is part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long there is Islam,” and that anyone who says otherwise "is an infidel.”[20]

Two Islamist groups, Boko Haram and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have supported the practice of slavery.[21][22] In 2014, both groups were reported to have kidnapped large numbers of girls and younger women.[23][24] According to an August 2015 story in The New York Times, in territory of the Islamic State, "the trade in Yazidi women and girls has created a persistent infrastructure, with a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them."[25]


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.[26]

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."[27] 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.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Forced labour – Themes". Retrieved 2015-01-15. 
  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" (PDF). 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". Chennai, India: The Hindu. October 13, 2013. 
  8. ^ "Mauritanian MPs pass slavery law". 9 August 2007. Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  9. ^ 'Oliver Twist' children used in crime, warns anti-slavery commissioner
  10. ^ a b Bryan Caplan. "Economics of Slavery Lecture Notes". Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  11. ^ Siddarth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
  12. ^ "Economic Roots of Trafficking in the UNECE Region". UNECE. Retrieved 2012-07-08. 
  13. ^ a b "Economics and Slavery" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-08-18. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ "ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour 2012: Results and Methodology". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  16. ^ "ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour 2012: Results and Methodology". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  17. ^ Khaled Abou El Fadl and William Clarence-Smith
  18. ^ Abou el Fadl, Great Theft, HarperSanFrancisco, c2005. p.255
  19. ^ "Islam and Slavery", William G. Clarence-Smith (dead link)
  20. ^ Shaikh Salih al-Fawzan "affirmation of slavery" was found on page 24 of "Taming a Neo-Qutubite Fanatic Part 1" when accessed on February 17, 2007
  21. ^ Spencer, Richard (14 October 2014). "Monday 20 October 2014 Thousands of Yazidis sold as sex slaves, say Isil". Irish Independent. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  22. ^ McPhee, Rod. "The schoolgirls stolen as sex slaves by Nigeria's anti-education jihadists Boko Haram" (3 May 2014). Daily Mirror. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  23. ^ Hill, Jonathan N.C. (July 30, 2014). "Boko Haram, the Chibok Abductions and Nigeria’s Counterterrorism Strategy". Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point. Retrieved 4 September 2014. 
  24. ^ EconomistStaff (October 18, 2014). "Jihadists Boast of Selling Captive Women as Concubines". The Economist. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  25. ^ CALLIMACHI;, RUKMINI (13 August 2015). "ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape". The New York Times. New York Times. Retrieved 17 August 2015. 
  26. ^ martin.margesin. "What is Human Trafficking?". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  27. ^ "Introduction - Trafficking in Persons Report". US Department of State. Retrieved 2013-08-18. 

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