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 United Nations 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”.


According to American professor Kevin Bales, co-founder and former president of the non-governmental organization and advocacy group Free the Slaves, modern slavery occurs “when a person is under the control of another person who applies violence and force to maintain that control, and the goal of that control is exploitation”. The impact of slavery is expanded when targeted at vulnerable groups such as children. 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. In another estimate that suggests the number is around 45.8 million, it is estimated that around 10 million of these contemporary slaves are children. 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. Modern slavery persists for many of the same reasons older variations did: it is an economically beneficial practice despite the ethical concerns. The problem has been able to escalate in recent years due to the disposability of slaves and the fact that the cost of slaves has dropped significantly.


Since slavery has been officially abolished, enslavement no longer revolves around legal ownership, but around illegal control. Two fundamental changes are the move away from the straightforward purchase of slave labor, and the existence of slaves as an employment category. While the statistics suggest that the ‘market’ for exploitative labor is booming, the notion that humans are purposefully sold and bought from an existing pool is outdated. While such basic transactions do still occur, in contemporary cases people become trapped in slavery-like conditions in various ways.

Modern slavery is often seen as a by-product of poverty. Countries that lack education, economic freedom, the rule of law, and have poor societal structure can create an environment that fosters the acceptance and propagation of slavery. Slavery is most prevalent in impoverished countries and those with vulnerable minority communities, though it also exists in developed countries. Tens of thousands toil in slave-like conditions in industries such as mining, farming, and factories, producing goods for domestic consumption or export to more prosperous nations.

In the older form of slavery, slave-owners spent more on getting slaves. It was harder for them to be disposed of. The cost of keeping them healthy was considered a better investment than getting another slave to replace them. In modern slavery people are easier to get at a lower price so replacing them when exploiters run into problems becomes easier. Slaves are then used in areas where they could easily be hidden while also creating a profit for the exploiter. Slaves are more attractive for unpleasant work, and less for pleasant work.

Modern slavery can be quite profitable and corrupt governments tacitly allow it, despite it being outlawed by international treaties such as Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery and local laws. Total annual revenues of traffickers were estimated in 2014 to over $150 billion dollars, though profits are substantially lower. American slaves in 1809 were sold for around the equivalent of US$40,000 in today’s money. Today, a slave can be bought for $90.

Slavery statistics and cause information come from: Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Maral Noshad Sharifi, Judy Fudge: Slavery and Unfree Labour: The Politics of Naming, Framing, and Blaming, Anti-Slavery International and CNN Freedom Project, Addressing Modern Slavery, Council on Foreign Relations, Siddarth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, Human Rights First, and Free The Slaves.