Modern Slavery: A Primer

by Michelle Palmer


Desktop2-001.jpgI’ve been learning about modern slavery – both formally and informally – for nearly 10 years now. Back in January of 2007, I didn’t have a clue about the then-estimated 27 million people still enslaved around the globe, nor did many of my friends. (Current estimates now sit around 46 million, but more on that later). Today, the issue of “human trafficking” has become far more publicized. (Sidenote: The use of the terms human trafficking and modern slavery and whether or not they are interchangeable is the subject of some debate in the field. For this post, I will use the term modern slavery.) Thanks to films like Taken and social media campaigns like the End It Movement, modern slavery has entered the public consciousness, at least far more so than it had in 2007. While I think this is largely beneficial to the antislavery movement, I have noticed through conversations with people around me a dearth of basic knowledge of modern slavery, other than the fact that it exists. I hope this and future posts will remedy some of that.

Once I decided to create my Modern Slavery Primer, I asked around to find out what people really want to know. Thanks to Chris, Lindsay, Lance, and Brittanys M. & R., I’m going to use their suggestions as prompts to cover the basics of modern slavery, its prevalence, how people become enslaved, and what’s being done about it.

Let me say right at the outset that this is an immensely complex issue, and I’ll only be able to cover the basics. I plan to delve a little deeper into the topic in the future. However, as was the case with each of our previous posts, I will pack this post with links for further research.

Defining Slavery

“When does historical slavery end and modern slavery begin? To be considered slavery, does the enslaved have to not make any money?” –  Brittany M.

The first question is pretty simple to answer. Historical slavery refers to slavery prior to emancipation. It was a legal institution, sanctioned and regulated by the government. Modern slavery is illegal, covert, and difficult to define. (For a scholarly analysis of historical and modern slavery, an article by my former professor Joel Quirk can be found here: The Anti-Slavery Project: Linking the Historical and Contemporary.)

The second question…well, it’s not so simple. The short answer is no, the person may make money and still be enslaved.

14608665_701413360888_3207268789740558548_oHere’s the long answer: When once there was a legal attachment to the ownership of people, how do we now recognize if a person is in fact enslaved? Modern slaves, like those before emancipation, are fed, clothed, housed, and may even occasionally be given wages. In the absence of legal ownership, there are two basic tenets that are used to determine if a person is a slave.

First, we must ask, “Can the person leave, even if it’s to a worse situation?” If a person can leave of his or her own free will, then they would not be considered enslaved. Even if the situation is abusive or exploitative, if they can walk away, it isn’t deemed “slavery.” Second, we must find out whether this is done for the purpose of exploitation. For example, though some instances of domestic violence fit the first descriptor, it isn’t considered slavery because the end result is not exploitation. (For the record, that doesn’t make it any less evil; the distinction is important primarily for purposes of how it is handled within the criminal justice system.)  

For more on definitions of slavery, you can find information here from Antislavery International and here from The Guardian.

Estimating Slavery

“Its prevalence and where it happens that we might not expect it to.” – Chris

81464664740_freesizeAs I’m sure you can imagine, estimating the number of slaves in the world today is a daunting task. The current estimate from the 2016 Global Slavery Index is 45.8 million. (Full disclosure: I was on the research team for the 2014 index.)

And where? Everywhere. Literally. You can explore the estimates for 167 countries on GSI website. Two of the biggest offenders are North Korea and India. North Korea has the highest estimated proportion of its population living in slavery at 4.4%, while India has the highest estimated number of enslaved people at 18.4 million.  58% of slaves live in these five countries: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. The estimate for the United States is just under 60,000.  

People may not be surprised by where the most slaves are found, but many are surprised to find is that forms of sexual slavery are not the most common, though they seem to be the most publicized. According to the International Labour Organization, the majority of those living in slavery are “victims of forced labour exploitation in economic activities, such as agriculture, construction, domestic work or manufacturing.”


Predicting Slavery

“Maybe root causes, like what are some factors that contribute to it or lead people into it?” – Lindsay

The key word here is vulnerability. Certain people are more vulnerable to slavery because of their circumstances. The following list is taken directly from the Free the Slaves website. You can (and should!) read full descriptions of these risk factors here.9eb9df0dc88525ebda760488ff301c75be409569_1600x1200

  • Lack of Awareness of Rights and Risks.
  • Absent or Weak Protective Organizations.
  • Absence of Critical Services. (i.e. schools and hospitals)
  • Inadequate Legal Protection.
  • Survivor Vulnerability.

In short, when people lack education, opportunity, and protection, they become more vulnerable to traffickers who would exploit those needs for economic or personal gain.

It’s an all too common story:  A trafficker arrives in a village where the economy hasn’t kept up with the population and promises work and wealth. With little to no other options, young people leave the village in hope and end up in misery, unable to return home.

Ending Slavery, Part 1

“I find it so disturbing…I just really want to know what’s being done about it.” – Brittany R.

lisakristinecom-infernostratum-nepalOne of the encouraging things about the increase in awareness is that there is a LOT being done about it. There are laws on the books around the world prohibiting slavery in all its forms. That’s the first step. Educating and empowering law enforcement to free the enslaved is a huge task, and that’s happening in some pretty impressive ways in places like Brazil and India. Another step is to limit people’s vulnerability to slavery. (I wrote my dissertation for my Master’s on the subject, and you can read the [very short] conclusion here.) Again, that’s already happening! You can read about Free the Slaves’ Community Based Model for Fighting slavery here.

Ending Slavery, Part 2

“Where do you see modern slavery in 10-20 years?” – Lance

This is a big, scary question. And nearly 46 million people is a whole lot. But the good news is that it’s the smallest percentage of the global population than it’s ever been before. And Kevin Bales, one of the world’s leading voices on the subject, believes we can end it in our lifetime. I highly recommend his book, Ending Slavery. You can read lisa_kristine_com-water-mine-ghanathe first chapter free – click here! I think he might be right, but it’ll take a whole bunch of us doing what we can, either with our careers or in our free time, both at home and abroad. So if you hate slavery like I do, get in where you fit in to help us end it.

And if you need help finding where you fit in, let me know, and I’ll put you to work!


For more information…

Organizations doing great work:

Polaris Project has created a searchable directory of anti-slavery organizations here:


Survivor Stories (the best resource for learning about slavery):

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