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What is modern slavery?

When we think about slavery what comes to mind is the Trans-Atlantic Slavery Trade, captured Africans, transported to the West Indies and America to work mainly in the sugar plantations. Although that slavery was abolished in 19th century, slavery still exists today. Although its modern forms are different, when we talk about slavery we do not use a metaphor.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) 20.9 million men, women and children around the world are in slavery. In the 21st century people are still sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and at the complete mercy of their 'employers'.
There are many different characteristics that distinguish slavery from other human rights violations, however only one needs to be present for slavery to exist. Someone is in slavery if they are:
  • forced to work - through mental or physical threat;
  • owned or controlled by an 'employer', usually through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse;
  • dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as 'property';
  • physically constrained or has restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement.
Contemporary slavery takes various forms and affects people of all ages, gender and races.

Slavery defined by law

Slavery exists today despite the fact that it is illegal in all the countries where it is practiced.  It is also prohibited by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.

Slavery is defined by the following international conventions:

  • The Slavery Convention (1926) says that “slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.”
  • International Labour Organization (ILO) Forced Labour Convention (No. 29),  from 1930 defines forced labour as “All work or service that is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, says:  “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
  • Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, The Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, 1956, lists modern forms of slavery: “Debt bondage, serfdom, forced marriage and the delivery of a child for the exploitation of that child are all slavery like practices and require criminalisation and abolishment.”

What types of slavery exist today?

  • Bonded labouraffects millions of people around the world, with biggest numbers in South East Asia. People become bonded labourers by taking, or being tricked into taking, a loan for which they are unable to ever pay off. Some bonded labourers receive basic food and shelter as 'payment' for their work, but due to penalties and exorbitant interest rates, no matter how hard they work they are never able to pay off the loan, which can even be passed down on to their children.
  • Child Slavery affects an estimated 5.5 million children around the world. Child slavery includes the worst form of child labour and child trafficking.
  • Early and forced marriage predominately affects women and girls who are married without choice, forced into lives of servitude often accompanied by physical violence and have no realistic choice of leaving the marriage.
  • Forced labour affects people who are illegally recruited by individuals, businesses or governments and forced to work - usually under the threat of violence or other penalties.
  • Descent-based slavery involves people who are either born into a 'slave' class or are from a 'group' that society views can be used for slave labour.
  • Trafficking involves the transport of any person from one area to another for the purpose of forcing them into slavery conditions. Trafficking involves transporting people between borders but can also affect
Many forms of slavery involve more than one element or form listed above. For example, trafficking often involves an advance payment for the trip and organising a promised job abroad which is borrowed from the traffickers. Once at the destination, the debt incurred serves as an element of controlling the victims as they are told they cannot leave the job until the debt is paid off .


Bonded labour in brick kilns, India Bonded labour in India's brick kilns.
© Pete Pattisson


Talibes - children forced to beg, Senegal Talibés - children forced to beg, Senegal
© Émilie Régnier

Children forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan Children and adults are forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan

Descent based slavery Women in Niger born into a 'slave' caste