Modern slavery
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Date: 11 March, 2007

Statue of slave breaking the chains of slavery on Ile de Gorée, a island off the coast of Dakar where slaves were shipped overseas.
Photo: Christian Aid/Louise Orton


'Women are the target of 77% of trafficking cases worldwide and sexual exploitation is involved in 87% of cases.'

Suzanne Elvidge looks at how the exploitation of people carries on today.

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So… with the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, it was all over. Or was it?

In the 21st Century, we still unfortunately live in a time of slavery, but it isn’t perhaps quite so obvious. Modern slavery takes many forms, but, as with ‘old’ slavery, it is an exploitation of the poor and vulnerable in our society.

Human trafficking

Trafficking in human beings is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons for the purpose of exploitation”. Women are the target of 77% of trafficking cases worldwide and sexual exploitation is involved in 87% of cases.

2.45 million people are victims of trafficking annually, of which 50 % are children. Trafficking into the UK appears to be primarily from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and East Asia for sexual exploitation and forced labour.

Slaves can be bought for as little as £15 - however, it is estimated that trafficking in the US yields around $9 billion every year, with trafficking in women for commercial sex purposes netting around $6 billion per year globally.

Child slaves & sexual exploitation

According to World Vision, an estimated 250 million children work in exploitative labour conditions around the world, with approximately two million children enslaved in the commercial sex trade.

In 2000 a Home Office research paper estimated that up to 1,420 women were trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation. Individuals, including children may be trafficked into the sex industry, or simply enter it out of economic necessity, attracted by the high incomes they can earn.

Sex workers are liable to end up working in horrific conditions, facing sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS as well as incurring physical and emotional damage. Poverty and lack of education is just as enslaving as physical entrapment.

Forced marriages

Forced marriage (as opposed to arranged marriage, where both parties give consent) can be a form of slavery, where (sometimes underage) girls and women are pressured, blackmailed or tricked into an unwanted marriage and used as slaves by their new ‘families’.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Forced Marriage Unit sees around 250 cases a year, and 211 cases of women being forced to marry or about to be made to marry were reported to West Yorkshire Police between October 2005 and September 2006. Changing the law could potentially make the problem worse, but the Home Office and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office have jointly launched a campaign to drive down the number of forced marriages.


In the rush for cheaper and cheaper clothes, according to War on Want in its report Fashion Victims, workers in Bangladesh receive as little as £8 a month, and can work up to 96 hours a week, with some facing up to 140 hours a month overtime, often unpaid, under the threat of dismissal.

Forced or bonded labour

Bonded labour, also known as debt bondage, is one of the most widely used forms of slavery, and involves people becoming slaves in return for a loan, perhaps for daily living or for the cost of medicine for a sick child.

In return, the slaves are forced to work long hours, seven days a week, up to 365 days a year for only basic food and shelter. The debts may be passed down for generations.

Why do they stay?

Modern slavery also includes employment of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, lured in by promises of education or good jobs. Men and women are trapped in poor and exploitative conditions by bullying, fear, or loss of legal status, for example employers intentionally letting visas expire.

What next?

It’s up to us, really. To reflect, to teach, to learn, to campaign, to get angry.

Further reading
• New Internationalist theme issue on slavery

Slaves’ stories
• Free The Slaves

• Unicef

• ‘Betrayed into marriage’

• ‘Forced marriage among Europe’s immigrants’

• View other slavery abolition articles