Slavery in the 21st century

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Contemporary slavery, also known as modern slavery or neo-slavery, refers to institutional slavery that continues to exist in present day society. Estimates of the number of slaves today range from around 21 million[1] to 70 million, depending on method used to estimate and the definition of slavery being used.[2][3]


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 are used in the US federal 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".[4]

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".[5] According to this definition, research from the Walk Free Foundation based on its Global Slavery Index 2016 estimated that there were about 40.3 million slaves around the world in 2016. [5][6] Of these 45.8 million, it is estimated that around 10 million of these contemporary slaves are children.[7] 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 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.[5]


Slavery by descent and chattel slavery[edit]

Slavery by descent, also called chattel slavery, is the form most often associated with the word "slavery". In chattel slavery, the enslaved person is considered the personal property (chattel) of someone else, and can usually be bought and sold. It stems historically from either conquest, where a conquered person is enslaved, as in the Roman Empire or Ottoman Empire, or from slave raiding, as in the Atlantic slave trade or Arab slave trade. In the 21st Century, almost every country has legally abolished chattel slavery.

Since the 2014 Civil War in Libya, and the subsequent breakdown of law and order, there have been reports of enslaved migrants being sold in public, open slave markets in the country.[8]

Mauritania has a long history with slavery. Chattel slavery was formally made illegal in the country but the laws against it have gone largely unenforced. It is estimated that around 90,000 people (over 2% of Mauritania's population) are slaves. In addition, forced marriage and child prostitution are not criminalised.[9]

Debt bondage can also be passed down to descendants, like chattel slavery. See the section on debt bondage below for more information on that. Sex slaves in the modern world are often effectively chattel, especially when they are forced into prostitution. Once again, see the section on sexual slavery below for more information.

Government-forced labour and conscription[edit]

The International Labour Organization defined forced labor as events "which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities."[10] When the threats come from the government the threats can be much different. In many governments that participate in forced labor shut down their connections with the surrounding countries to prevent citizens from leaving.

In North Korea, the government forces many people to work for the state, both inside and outside North Korea itself, sometimes for many years. The 2018 Global Slavery Index estimated that 2.8 million people were slaves in the country.[11] The value of all the labour done by North Koreans for the government is estimated at US$975 million, with dulgyeokdae (youth workers) forced to do dangerous construction work, and inminban (women and girl workers) forced to making clothing in sweatshops. The workers are often unpaid.[12] Additionally, North Korea's army of 1.2 million soldiers is often made to work on construction projects unrelated to defense.[12]

In Eritrea, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people are in an indefinite military service program which amounts to mass slavery, according to UN investigators. Their report also found sexual slavery and other forced labour.[13]

About 35–40 countries are currently enforcing military conscription of some sort, even if it is only temporary service.

Prison labour[edit]

In China's system of labour prisons (formerly called laogai), millions of prisoners have been subject to forced, unpaid labour. The laogai system is estimated to currently house between 500,000 and 2 million prisoners,[14] And to have caused tens of millions of deaths.[15] In parallel with laogai, China operated the smaller Re-education through labor system of prisons up until 2013.[16] In addition to both of these, It has been alleged that China is also operating forced labour camps in Xinjiang, imprisoning hundreds of thousands (possibly as many as a million) of Muslims, Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities and political dissidents.[17]

At first China denied this, claiming there was no suppression of ethnic minorities, no arbitrary detention or re-education centers in Xinjiang.[18] About a month later, China went back on this, with the Xinjiang government formally legalising the prisons.[19]

In 1865, the United States passed the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which banned slavery and involuntary servitude "except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted",[20] providing a legal basis for slavery to continue in the country.[21] As of 2018, many prisoners in the US perform work. In Texas, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas, prisoners are not paid at all for their work.[22] In other states, as of 2011, prisoners were paid between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour.[23] Federal Prison Industries paid innmates an average of $0.90 per hour in 2017.[21] In many cases the penal work is forced, with prisoners being punished by solitary confinement if they refuse to work.[24][25] From 2010 to 2015[26] and again in 2016[27] and 2018,[28] some prisoners in the US refused to work, protesting for better pay, better conditions, and for the end of forced labour. Strike leaders are currently punished with indefinite solitary confinement.[29][30] Forced prison labour occurs in both public/government-run prisons and private prisons. The prison labour industry makes over $1 billion USD per year selling products that inmates make, while inmates are paid very little or nothing in return.[21] In California, 2,500 incarcerated workers are fighting wildfires for only $1 per hour, which saves the state as much as $100 million a year.[31]

In North Korea, tens of thousands of prisoners may be held in forced labour camps. Prisoners suffer harsh conditions and have been forced to dig their own graves[32] and to throw rocks at the dead body of another prisoner.[33] At Yodok Concentration Camp, children and political prisoners were subject to forced labour.[33] Yodok closed in 2014 and its prisoners were transferred to other prisons.[34]

Bonded labor[edit]

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 be forced to work under the threat of violence to them or their families.[35] 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.

In the United Arab Emirates, some foreign workers are exploited and more or less enslaved. The majority of the UAE resident population are foreign migrant workers rather than local Emirati citizens. The country has a kafala system which ties migrant workers to local Emirati sponsors with very little government oversight. This has often led to forced labour and human trafficking.[36] In 2017, the UAE passed a law to protect the rights of domestic workers.[37]

Vietnamese teenagers are trafficked to the United Kingdom and forced to work in illegal cannabis farms. When police raid the cannabis farms, trafficked victims are typically sent to prison.[38][39]

Sex slavery[edit]

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 the Middle East. An estimated 22% of slaves to date are active in the sex industry.[40]

In 2005, the Gulf Times reported that boys from Nepal had been lured to India and enslaved for sex. Many of these boys had also been subject to male genital mutilation (castration).[41]

Many of those who become victims of sex slavery initially do so willingly under the guise that they will be performing traditional sex work, only to become trapped for extended periods of time, such as those involved in Nigeria's human trafficking circuit.[42]

Forced marriage and child marriage[edit]

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 often fosters an environment for physical, verbal and sexual abuse.[citation needed]

Forced marriages also happen in developed nations. In the United Kingdom there were 3,546 reports to the police of forced marriage over three years from 2014 to 2016. Reported cases are the tip of an iceberg.[43]

In the United States over 200,000 minors were legally married from 2002 to 2017, with the youngest being only 10 years old. Most were married to adults.[44] Currently 48 US states, as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico, allow marriage of minors as long as there is judicial consent, parental consent or if the minor is pregnant.[45][46] In 2017–2018, several states began passing laws to either restrict child marriage[47][48][49] or ban it altogether.[50]

Bride-buying is the act of purchasing a bride as property, in a similar manner to chattel slavery. It can also be related to human trafficking.

Child labor[edit]

Children comprise about 26% of the slaves today.[40] Although children can legally engage in certain forms of work, children can also be found in slavery or slavery-like situations. Forced Begging is a common way that children as forced to participate in labor without their consent. 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.

Child Soldiers are children who may be trafficked from their homes and forced or coerced by armed forces. The armed forces could be government armed forces, paramilitary organizations, or rebel groups. While in these groups the children may be forced to work as cooks, guards, servants or spies. [51] It is common for both boys and girls to be sexually abused while in these groups.

Fishing industry[edit]

One of world's largest seafood exporters, Thailand's fishing industry is rife with trafficking and abuse.[52] Many reports since 2000 have documented the forced labor of trafficked workers in the Thai fishing industry. Thousands of migrants from neighboring Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar etc. and locals mainly from rural areas have been forced to work on fishing boats with no contract or stable wages.[53] Trafficking victims are often tricked by brokers' false promises of "good" factory jobs, then forced onto fishing boats where they are trapped, bought and sold like livestock, and held against their will for months or years at a time, forced to work grueling 22-hour days in dangerous conditions. Those who resist or try to run away are beaten, tortured, and often killed.[54] This is commonplace because of the disposability of unfree labourers.


In addition to sex slavery, modern slaves are often forced to work in certain occupations. Common occupations include:

  • Small-scale building work, such as laying driveways, and other labour.[55]
  • Cannabis farming – Teenagers are trafficked from Vietnam to work in illegal cannabis farms in Britain.[38]
  • Car washing by hand[55]
  • Domestic servitude, sometimes with sexual exploitation.[55]
  • Nail bars (cosmetic). Many people are trafficked from Vietnam to the UK for this work.[55]
  • Fishing, mainly associated with Thailand's sea food industry.[56][57]
  • Manufacturing – Many prisoners in the US are forced to manufacture products as diverse as mattresses, spectacles, underwear, road signs and body armour.[58]
  • Agriculture and forestry – Prisoners in the United States and China are often forced to do farming and forestry work. See prison farm.
  • In North Korea, dulgyeokdae (youth workers) are often forced to work in construction and inminban (women workers) are forced to work in clothing sweatshops.[12]

Signs that someone may have been forced into slavery include a lack of identity documents, lack of personal possessions, clothing that is unsuitable or has seen much wear, poor living conditions, a reluctance to make eye contact, unwillingness to talk, and unwillingness to seek help. In the UK people are encouraged to report suspicions to a modern slavery telephone helpline.[55]


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 labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.[59]

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."[60] 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.[61]

In recent years, the internet and popular social networking sites have become tools which traffickers use to find vulnerable people who they can then exploit. A 2017 Reuters report discusses how a woman is suing Facebook for negligence as she speculated that executives were aware of a situation that occurred back in 2012 where was sexually abused and trafficked by someone posing as her "friend".[62]

Governmental efforts against slavery[edit]

The governments credited with the strongest response to modern slavery are the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, Portugal, Croatia, Spain, Belgium, Germany and Norway.[63] In the United Kingdom, the government has instituted major reforms in the legal system through the Criminal Finance Act effective from September 30, 2017. Under the act, there will be transparency in regards to interbank information sharing with law enforcement agencies to help to crack down on money laundering agencies related to contemporary slavery. The Act also aims at reducing the incidence of tax evasion attributed to the lucrative slave trade conducted under the domain of the law. [64] Despite this the UK government has been refusing asylum and deporting children trafficked to the UK as slaves. This puts the children at risk of being subject to control by slavery gangs a second time. It also deters child victims from coming forward with information.[65]

English and Welsh police have been accused of doing too little,[66] and of not handling victims in ways that encourage them to explain what has happened.[67] There are also legal difficulties in defining crimes and prosecuting perpetrators.[68]

In contrast, the governments accused of 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.[63]


Prevalence of modern 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 can be higher.

Modern slavery is a multibillion-dollar industry with estimates of up to $35 billion generated annually.[needs update] In 2013 the United Nations estimated that roughly 27 to 30 million individuals are currently caught in the slave trade industry.[69] According to Walk Free Foundation, there were 46 million people worldwide enslaved in 2016 in the form of "human trafficking, forced labor, bondage from indebtedness, forced or servile marriage or commercial sexual exploitation", with an estimated 18 million of those in India.[63] China is second with 3.4 million, followed by Pakistan (2.1 million), Bangladesh (1.5 million), and Uzbekistan (1.2 million). By percentages of the population living in slavery Uzbekistan tops with 4% of its population living under slavery followed by Cambodia (1.6%), India (1.4%) and Qatar (1.4%).[3] Although these figures have also faced criticism for its inconsistency and questionable methodology.[70][71]

4.3% of the population of Mauritania still remains enslaved.[needs update][72] 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 suggested 10,000 to 13,000 victims in December 2015.[needs update] This includes, forced work of various kinds, such as forced prostitution.[73] 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. The Walk Free Foundation reported in 2018 that slavery in advanced democratic nations is much more common than previously known, in particular the United States and Great Britain, which have 403,000 and 136,000 slaves respectively. Andrew Forrest, founder of the organization, said that "The United States is one of the most advanced countries in the world yet has more than 400,000 modern slaves working under forced labor conditions."[74]

See also[edit]


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    By the general estimate China's prison and labor camp population was roughly 10 million in any one year under Mao. Descriptions of camp life by inmates, which point to high mortality rates, indicate a probable annual death rate of at least 10 per cent.

  16. ^ Moore, Malcolm (2014-01-09). "China abolishes its labour camps and releases prisoners". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2016-05-26.
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External links[edit]