Modern Slavery

Written by Maya

Think of the word “slavery.” Most likely, images of slave-carrying wooden ships, old-fashioned slave auctions, and American plantations in the south flashed through your mind, connotations relating to the past. But slavery still exists. It surrounds us, many of us benefit from it, but most people don’t see it. In 2016, 40.3 million people were living in modern slavery.

Slavery is an inescapable situation of exploitation where a person is forced to work against their will, considered property and dehumanized, or limited in their freedom of movement. Slave owners and traffickers bait their victims by using false promises, which works well with poor, uneducated, and/or marginalized populations that are vulnerable to exploitation. Slavery has many forms.

Forced labor is when a person is forced to work under threats of violence or coercion; they make up half of the world's slaves. 90% of forced laborers are exploited by the private economy, businesses and individuals, that is motivated by its greed for profit. Today, 4.1 million people are enslaved in state-sanctioned labor (abuse of conscription, agriculture, state-mandated construction, etc.)

Debt bondage is when a person is forced to work for free to pay off a debt but the length and type of service are unreasonable and undefined. Thus, repaying the debt is impossible.

Child slavery composes about 1/4th of the world’s enslaved people. As cheap labor, they are forced into commercial sex acts, domestic servitude, and jobs that are mentally and physically harmful.

Forced marriage is when a person, without the right to refuse, is “married off” in exchange for money and is treated as property. 38% of modern slaves are in forced marriages.

Domestic servitude is the exploitation and control of a person who appears to be live-in domestic help, but cannot leave of their own free will.

Human trafficking is the use of violence and intimidation to transport and exploit people for forced prostitution, criminal acts, organ removal, and more.

Descent-based slavery is when people are treated as property and their “slave” status is passed down through generations.

It is also important to address the fact that 71% of modern enslaved people are female, which means that a crucial aspect of eradicating modern slavery is women’s empowerment to prevent their vulnerability to exploitation.

The 3 countries with the highest prevalence of slavery are North Korea, Eritrea, and Burundi. In North Korea, about 1/10 people are enslaved, with a majority enslaved by the state. The countries with a high level of slavery and weak responses to combat it are "characterized by government complicity...low levels of political will...fewer available resources...or high levels of conflict (GSI)."

Taken from the 2018 Global Slavery Index.

We must look at the issue of slavery from the perspective of the countries and people that consume the products of the crime, because we are also complicit. Annually, the G20 (not including South Africa or the EU) imports $354 billion worth of products at risk of being produced by slaves. The top 5 of these products are electronics (laptops, computers, phones), garments, fish, cocoa, and sugarcane.

Despite a small trend of improvement in the last decade, we are not on track to eradicate modern slavery. Of the 183 countries assessed by the 2018 Global Slavery Index, 47 haven’t fully criminalized human trafficking, 96 haven’t criminalized forced labor, and 133 haven’t criminalized forced marriage. And these are just the basic steps our governments must take to eradicate slavery.



Understand the impact that slavery has on your life. How do you benefit from slavery? To find out your estimated “slavery footprint,” take this quiz:

Learn about modern-day slavery by reading books and articles, watching movies, and listening to the stories of survivors.

Link to books+films related to modern slavery:

Link to some narratives of former modern slaves:

Link to more news related to modern slavery:

Raise awareness. Most people don’t know that slavery still exists on the scale that it exists today. Talk to your friends and family about how you benefit from slavery and encourage more ethical behavior. Share information on social media; use your platform!

Modify Our Choices.

Anyone can modify their own choices when it comes to supporting companies that promote modern slavery. The term is simple: purchase power. We, the public, wield our money as a tool of influence. By boycotting companies that use modern slavery, we have the power to change their behaviors and to behave ethically ourselves.

Link to a shortlist of slave-free companies:

Link to examples of ethical shopping apps:

Most importantly, keep modern slavery in mind as you go about your daily life. Can you buy your coffee from a slave-free brand? Can you shop in ethical clothing stores? What changes can you make to do your part in eradicating modern slavery?


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