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About Contemporary Slavery


Different definitions of contemporary slavery exist within international institutions. Several organizations refer to a particular form of slavery when defining it, whereas others tend to encompass a greater range of situations that lead to slavery. Below are a few of the more common definitions from major international organizations and institutions.

  • The International Labor Organization (ILO) refers to its Convention nº29 when defining “forced labor”: Forced or compulsory labor is “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily” (ILO Forced Labor Convention, Nº29, Article 2.1, 1930). Forced labor is defined by the nature of the relation between the person performing the work and the person forcing the worker, whether physically, financially, psychologically, or otherwise. According to the ILO, forced labor includes practices such as slavery, debt bondage and serfdom.
  • The United Nations (UN) bases its definition of slavery on several texts, although the original mention is found in Article 1.1 of the Slavery Convention (1926), which defines slavery as “…the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised…”. Later texts included forced labor in a broader definition.
  • The European Union (EU) focuses more on the human trafficking side of slavery, forced labor and sexual exploitation. Its Home Affairs Directorate General (DG) nominates an Anti-Trafficking Coordinator in charge of these questions. The current Coordinator is Mrs. Myria Vassiliadou.

-          Anti-Slavery International, a major NGO working to abolish slavery, defines slaves as being 1) forced to work, 2) owned or controlled by an employer, often by either physical or mental constraints, 3) dehumanized, considered a “property” and 4) not free of movement or physically constrained[i].


Finding an exact number to quantify the amount of slaves in the world today is an extremely difficult task, due to the nature of this phenomenon. Several initiatives have nonetheless attempted to produce solid estimates of slavery’s presence, led by the ILO or other organizations (such as the Global Slavery Index, to be published soon).

In 2012, after revising their methods of data collection and analysis, the International Labor Organization (ILO) published an estimate of the victims of slavery around the world, based on a more efficient and complete data collection process. The number of slaves in the period from 2002-2011 is estimated to be 21 million, spread across all continents. This estimate remains conservative, especially in consideration of the difficulties of taking into account all cases of slavery, which often happens undercover.

This number includes those who are victims of trafficking, which resulted in their enslavement, whether for labor or sexual exploitation[ii].

Less conservative estimates mention up to 27 million slaves worldwide, with a majority living in Asia. Overall, women and girls represent a majority amongst the victims of slavery, with the exception of the category of forced labor in the private economy. A little less than a third of all slaves are children (anyone under 18, as per the UN definition).


Slavery has a huge impact on the world market. In July 2013, The Guardian published a story, quoting the ILO, reporting that slavery provides for a 32 billion USD industry, posing the obvious question of what the world would then look like without slavery as a source of free labor. This amount is representative of the place slavery occupies in the supply chain of the global economy. With an ever-ending search for the cheapest labor, hence rendering goods more than affordable to billions of consumers, slavery has become, for some, the only way to sustain a business – and profit.

In 19th century America, a slave could cost up to 40,000$ in today’s money, an extremely high price for a slave considered as an investment and a prized possession (a price which also accounted for the cost of travel, which is almost irrelevant nowadays). Today, according to Free the Slaves, the American sister organization of Anti-Slavery International, a slave can be purchased on average for 90$[iii]. At times however, slaves are stolen instead, or donated as a ‘gift’ to a friend or family member. This low price has rendered slaves interchangeable and disposable, with very little consideration for their life in case of injury or sickness.

Principal Forms

Contemporary slavery can manifest itself in different forms, some more common or visible than others. In general, unpaid work from which the person cannot escape because of the lingering threat of violence is considered as forced labor. It is found in a range of industries and sectors, such as in extractive industries (mining, for example), but also in the service sector.

Sexual exploitation is also a form of slavery, where women (but also a minority of men) are often lured into jobs with the promise of a salary, never expecting to end up in a brothel at the service of violent owners. Children in the sex industry are usually kidnapped from their parents or guardians, to then be treated as commodities.

Debt bondage is a very particular form of slavery whereby a person pledges their labor in order to repay a debt (for examples, smuggling costs to a Western country). More often than not, the debt is repaid multiple times while the person is still expected to work. Often, there is no set date by which the debt is repaid, resulting in endless work on the slave’s behalf. This phenomenon can even be passed on from one generation to the next.

Child labor and child soldiers are introduced to slavery at extremely young ages. Capitalizing on their vulnerability, the slave-owners do not hesitate to use them for hard labor, controlling them through intimidation, kidnapping and the misleading promises of a better future (or simply of a meal a day). As a result, these millions of enslaved children cannot obtain an education, reinforcing their vulnerability and leaving little option for their future as unqualified citizens.

Human trafficking is considered by some to be a form of slavery, whereas we, and others, argue that it is actually a path that leads to slavery. Traffic in human beings results in slavery in all its forms, but can also be limited to organ trafficking. Trafficking does not necessarily imply crossing borders, and is not the only way to become enslaved. Some slaves inherit their status from their parents, most often from their mother.

Child marriage is also included in the UN Special Rapporteur’s mandate as a practice resulting in the enslavement of young girls, most often in domestic servitude. They are sold and traded as commodities and expect to remain at the service of their commanding husband.

Main Stakeholders

The most common image of slavery in the Western world is that of a man in chains, usually of African descent, being traded or exploited by a rich white plantation owner in the South of the United States, circa 1800. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and slavery (in the form described above) slowly disappeared in the United States.

Today, slavery’s multiple forms and stakeholders make it an equally challenging endeavor to abolish, especially considering the scale and spread of slavery. However, the international community has in the past shown its ability to come together and tackle problems by creating international legislative pieces, which were then applied and enforced in each state.

So why does slavery still exist despite extensive legislation?

The answer to this question is far from concise, but a quick look at all the stakeholders involved in slavery can begin to explain:

Companies seeking to offer the lowest price available to their consumers will look for the cheapest resources available. These resources, whether crops, minerals, iron ore or chemicals are in high demand in an ever industrializing world – and often difficult of access. Extracting these resources or creating them is often synonym of hard physical labor. Seeking to reduce production costs to a minimum (to create the cheapest product), producers will opt for the cheapest labor available in order to cut costs, sometimes resulting in the use of slave labor. With globalization, supply chains have become extremely long, making it difficult to clearly identify the source of certain products. Sometimes unknowingly, although often intentionally, companies and consumers easily make the mistake of buying or selling products that are the result of slave labor.

In the private sphere, slave-owners perpetuate slavery by owning domestic servants or workers for their own benefit. Sometimes, owning slaves is part of a longstanding tradition anchored in society as a sign of affluence. Owning a slave for private purposes is relevant in some child marriages but also when it comes to slavery through heritage, as in Mauritania. Sometimes, community or religious leaders contribute to slavery’s existence: they do not condone it, and, therefore, in no way contribute to its stigmatization or disappearance.

Human trafficking has benefited immensely to those who traffic men, women and children, using them as sex slaves or free labor.

With no real enforcement of legislation by governments, slavery’s presence continues unabated. Some, of course, make more of an effort than others do, but cases of slavery have been reported all over the world, no country spared. Clearly, both local and national forms of government have a responsibility in enforcing the appropriate legislation. Officially, all countries have pledged to abolish slavery –but  which ones will actually take care to do so, still remains to be seen.

Existing Legislation

Below is a list of a few of the most important legislative documents pertaining to slavery:

In countries where slavery has been criminalized, typical punishments for slaver-owners can range from paying substantial fines to spending up to several years in prison. However, this does not mean that every government which has criminalized slavery enforces the law.

Paths towards Abolition

Several stakeholders are also very active in combating slavery. They are responsible for advocacy strategies at national and international levels, but also for on-the-ground work with slaves and ex-slaves. Prevention, protection, training and investigation are all at the top of their repertoire. Human rights defenders, consumers, international institutions officials, companies, ordinary citizens, law-enforcement officials, former slaves, government leaders and elected officials can therefore all play their part in the abolition of slavery.

In a “Memo to a dead president” (2012), Professor Kevin Bales stated that the financial effort needed over 25 years to eradicate slavery is estimated at 11 billion USD, which is half of what the US war on drugs costs annually!

Also extremely important is the period after a slave has just been freed: considerable attention needs to in fact be paid in regards to these individual’s subsequent integration into society, so that they may successfully employ their skills to make a living, after years, and sometimes a lifetime, of servitude.

The different initiatives listed here will give you an idea of the type of actions which are being taken towards the abolition of slavery as we speak.

Worldwide Initiatives against Slavery


[i] Anti-Slavery International, “What is Modern Slavery?”, available at

[ii] International Labor Organization (2012), “ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labor: Results and Methodology”, available at (consulted 1/08/2013)

[iii] Free the Slaves, “About Slavery”, (consulted Aug 5, 2013)