Slavery and Forced Labour: 27 Million Slaves Worldwide


Slavery and Forced Labor 

Rights at Stake
International and Regional Instruments of Protection and Promotion
National and International Protection Agencies
Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials
Other Resources



What is slavery?
To be a slave is to be controlled by another person or persons so that your will does not determine your life’s course, and rewards for your work and sacrifices are not yours to claim. According to Kevin Bales, one of the world’s leading experts on contemporary slavery, “people are enslaved by violence and held against their wills for purposes of exploitation.” While people today most likely believe that slavery is a thing of the past, the practice is still thriving wherever poverty, social conditions, and gullability can be exploited. Bale estimates that there are 27 million slaves in the world today. (Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, University of California Press, 1999)

The Slavery Convention (article 1.1) in 1926 defined 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….”

The convention defined slave trade as

“…all acts involved in the capture, acquisition or disposal of a person with intent to reduce him to slavery; all acts involved in the acquisition of a slave with a view to selling or exchanging him; all acts of disposal by sale or exchange of a slave acquired with a view to being sold or exchanged, and, in general, every act of trade or transport in slaves by whatever means of conveyance.” (article 1.2)

The 1926 Convention’s definition of slavery was broadened to include forced or compulsory labor in 1930 in the ILO Convention (No. 29) concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (article 2.1):

“…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.”

According to the United Nations, 4 million people a year are traded against their will to work in a form of servitude. The majority of them come from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.


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Rights at Stake

Slavery includes:

1) The practices and institutions of debt bondage: the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined.

2) The practices and institutions of serfdom: the condition or status of a tenant who is by law, custom or agreement bound to live and labour on land belonging to another person and to render some determinate service to such other person, whether for reward or not, and is not free to change his status.

3) Servile forms of marriage: a woman, without the right to refuse, is promised or given in marriage on payment of a consideration in money or in kind to her parents, guardian, family or any other person or group; or the husband of a woman, his family, or his clan, has the right to transfer her to another person for value received or otherwise; or a woman on the death of her husband is liable to be inherited by another person.

4) The exploitation of children and adolescents: any institution or practice whereby a child or young person under the age of 18 years, is delivered by either or both of his natural parents or by his guardian to another person, whether for reward or not, with a view to the exploitation of the child or young person or of his labor.

To determine exactly which practices constitute slavery it is necessary to consider the circumstances of the enslavement:

  • the degree of restriction of the individual’s inherent right to freedom of movement;
  • the degree of control of the individual’s personal belongings;
  • the existence of informed consent and a full understanding of the nature of the relationship between the parties.

    In some cases states that have agreed to the definitions of slavery set forth by the conventions may be endorsing circumstances that enslave individuals within their jurisdiction – thus enforcing the abolitionist conventions becomes difficult and controversial. Prison systems, for example, are state sanctioned and often provide cheap (if not free) labor for corporations – all legal by the laws of some states.

    By these definitions and under a variety of circumstances slaves are a part of our lives – from the chocolate that we eat to the charcoal we burn, slave labor may have contributed to the production of the goods we use daily.

    The International Labor Organization (ILO) says there are eight main forms of forced labor in the world today. ILO’s definitions and the countries it cites as examples of where the practices exist:






    A “physical abduction” followed by forced labor.

    Congo, Liberia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone and Sudan

    Farm and rural debt bondage

    Workers see all their wages go to paying for transportation, food and shelter because they’ve been “locked into debt” by unscrupulous job recruiters and landowners – and they can’t leave because of force, threats or the remote location of the worksites.

    Benin, Bolivia, Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Togo

    Bonded labor

    Another form of debt bondage, it often starts with the worker agreeing to provide labor in exchange for a loan, but quickly develops into bondage as the employer adds more and more “debt” to the bargain.

    Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistán, Sri Lanka

    People trafficking

    Individuals are forced or tricked into going somewhere by someone who will profit from selling them or forcing them to work against their will, most often in sexual trades. Many countries are both “origins” and “destinations” for victims.

    Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, China, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Republic of Korea, Laos, Latvia, Malaysia, Moldova, Myanmar, the Netherlands, Nepal, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, USA, Vietnam, Yugoslavia

    Abuse of domestic workers

    Maids and other domestic servants are sold to their employers or bonded to them by debts.

    Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, France, Haiti, the Middle East

    Prison labor

    The contracting out of prison labor or forcing of prisoners to work for profit-making enterprises.

    Australia, Austria, China, Cote d’Ivoire, France, Germany, New Zealand, Madagascar, Malaysia, USA

    Compulsory work

    People are required by law to work on public construction projects such as roads and bridges.

    Cambodia, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Burma (also known as Myanmar), Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Vietnam

    Military labor

    Civilians are forced to do work for government authorities or the military.

    Burma (also known as Myanmar)

    Source: USA Today


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    International and Regional Instruments for Protection and Promotion

    International legal instruments take the form of a treaty (also called agreement, convention, or protocol) that binds the contracting states to the negotiated terms. When negotiations are completed, the text of a treaty is established as authentic and definitive and is “signed” by the representatives of states. A state can agree to be bound to a treaty in various ways. The most common are ratification or accession. A new treaty is ratified by those states that have negotiated the instrument. A state that has not participated in the negotiations may, at a later stage, accede to the treaty. The treaty enters into force, or becomes valid, when a pre-determined number of states have ratified or acceded to the treaty.

    When a state ratifies or accedes to a treaty, that state may make reservations to one or more articles of the treaty, unless reservations are prohibited by the treaty. Reservations may normally be withdrawn at any time. In some countries, international treaties take precedence over national law; in others a specific law may be required to give a ratified international treaty the force of a national law. Practically all states that have ratified or acceded to an international treaty must issue decrees, change existing laws, or introduce new legislation in order for the treaty to be fully effective on the national territory.

    The following international instruments determine standards for the abolition of and protection against slavery, forced labour and slavery-like practices:



    Slavery Convention (1926)
    The first international treaty, adopted by the League of Nations (predecessor of the United Nations) that defines slavery and slave trade and commits governments to abolishing slavery.

    ILO Convention (No. 29) concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (1930)
    This convention broadened the 1926 Slavery Convention’s definition of slavery to include forced or compulsory labor.

    Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (article 4)
    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948. The UDHR is not a binding treaty yet provides a the normative basis for international human rights standards. Article 4 states that ”No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.

    Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1949)
    This treaty consolidates a number of pre-existing treaties on the prohibition of slavery, trafficking in women and children, and prostitution.

    Protocol amending the Slavery Convention signed at Geneva on 25 September 1926 (1953)
    This treaty is mostly of an administrative nature as it replaces the institutions of the League Nations, which adopted the original Slavery Convention, with the institutions of the United Nations.

    Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956)
    Broadened the 1926 Slavery Convention to include slavery-like practices and forced labour.

    ILO Convention (No. 105) Concerning the Abolition of Forced Labour (1957)
    This convention fully defined the forms of slavery U.N. members must commit to preventing in their countries. “Each Member of the International Labour Organisation which ratifies this Convention undertakes to suppress and not to make use of any form of forced or compulsory labour:
    (a) as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social or economic system;
    (b) as a method of mobilising and using labour for purposes of economic development;
    (c) as a means of labour discipline;
    (d) as a punishment for having participated in strikes;
    (e) as a means of racial, social, national or religious discrimination.” (Article 1)

    ILO Convention (182) concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1989)
    ILO Convention 182 bans the worst forms of child labour including slavery, sale and debt bondage, forced labour, recruitment for armed forces, prostitution, drug trafficking or other illicit activities, or other work which harms the health, safety or morals of children.

    Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (2000)
    This optional protocol is designed to criminalize activities that involve the sale and illegal adoption of children as well as child prostitution and child pornography. The protocol entered into force on 18 January 2002.



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    African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981) (article 5)
    Article 5 of the main African human rights treaty stipulates that “all forms of exploitation and degradation of man particularly slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be prohibited.”


    The Council of Europe is a regional intergovernmental organization consisting of 45 countries. It aims to defend human rights, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. All members of the European Union also belong to the Council of Europe.

    European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950) (article 4)
    Europe’s main human rights treaty prohibits slavery and forced labor yet also clearly defines what should not be considered forced or compulsory labor: work required to be done in the ordinary course of detention; any service of a military character as part of compulsory military service; any service exacted in case of an emergency or calamity threatening the life or well-being of the community; any work or service which forms part of normal civic obligations.



    American Convention on Human Rights (1969) (article 6)
    Article 6 (freedom from slavery) of the American Convention on Human Rights, which entered into force in 1978, states that “No one shall be subject to slavery or to involuntary servitude, which are prohibited in all their forms, as are the slave trade and traffic in women.” Like the European Convention on Human Rights it also lists situations which are not to be considered forced labor or slavery (work in situations of detention, military service, emergencies or which are part of civic duties).




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    National and International Protection Agencies

    Countries which have ratified these international and regional treaties have agreed to meet their obligations under these conventions by implementing these provisions fully at the national level. This should mean in the first instance reviewing their laws relating to slavery and forced labor and adapting these to ensure they are in conformity or adopting new laws to meet these requirements. Globally the International Labour Organization, one of the UN’s specialized agencies, plays a key role in enforcing international standards on protection against slavery and assisting victims of slavery through initiatives like its International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). Another UN initiative is the Global Programme against Trafficking in Human Beings.

    Non-governmental organizations like Anti-Slavery International (ASI), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are very active internationally through campaigns and monitoring activities.

    There are many examples of organizations that combat slavery at the national leve. The Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) of Brazil works against slavery. CPT lobbies the Brazilian Government to enforce the laws prohibiting slavery, and have helped reduce the number of children forced to work for no pay. SOS Slaves in Mauritania. Two Mauritanian organizations – led by ex-slaves – work to free slaves at great risk. The underground movement El Hor (“The Free”) and SOS Esclaves both pressure the government for change and assist escaped slaves. Though initiated by local Arab and African tribes who formed a peace treaty, the slave redemption program today enjoys considerable support from Christian Solidarity International (CSI), a Swiss-based humanitarian organization. Prominent civil rights – most notably Rev. Al Sharpton, Congressman Walter Fauntroy, and NAACP activist Joe Madison – leaders have recently assisted CSI’s missions.

    More and more organizations are also working to combat and prevent trafficking and sexual servitude. La Strada works throughout Central and Eastern Europe to prevent trafficking and assist victims of sexual servitude. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women raises awareness and lobbies policy-makers internationally on behalf of sexually exploited women. The Protection Project collects legal data and survivor stories regarding trafficking in women and children.



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    Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials

    For advocates

    Guide to the New UN Trafficking Protocol
    Short guide that describes the origins of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2001) and provides information on the issue of trafficking in women and children. Includes the full text of the protocol.

    For educators

    Anti-Slavery Fact Sheets (Anti-Slavery International)
    This is a series of useful lesson resources on various topics related to modern-day slavery. The two-pagers on “Bonded Labour” and “Slavery from the past…” can be used by teachers as illustrative materials in civic education, history or other social science classrooms.

    Breaking the Silence: Learning About the Translantic Slave Trade (Anti-Slavery International)
    This site aims to help teachers and educators to Break the Silence that continues to surround the story of the enslavement of Africa that began over 500 years ago. It is designed to provide teachers with a variety of resources and ideas about how to teach the subject holistically, accurately and truthfully. It aims to represent the voices that are not usually heard.

    Child Slavery (Beverly Witwer, University of Iowa Center for Human Rights)
    This module contains four lesson plans and each lesson is highly flexible and adaptable. Standards by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) were used to guide the development of this module and it is designed so that teachers can teach a lesson within 1-2 class periods to introduce the subject or fully integrate the materials into the classrooms throughout the year. Teachers can also combine different lesson plans or combine modules for a more comprehensive introduction. The module is adaptable for students in 5th grade all the way up to high school level.

    Freedom From Slavery (Amnesty International-USA)
    This lesson plan provides teachers with a guide detailing how to educate their students about contemporary forms of slavery around the world. Through this lesson students will compare and contrast historical and present day images of slavery as well as produce art-work to inform and incite action to prevent modern day slavery.

    The Invisible Children (International Labour Organization, Education International)
    This brochure offers teachers an opportunity to take part in the growing worldwide movement to eliminate child labour. The brochure was published on the occassion of World Day Against Child Labour (12 June) and offers information about What is “child labour”?, The “Invisible Children”, What is Child Domestic Labour?, Victims of exploitation, How many are there?, What can be done?. The brochure includes three lesson activities (“The Word Box”, “A Day in the Life”, “Imagine the Future”), and provides additional information about the work of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Education International.


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    Other Resources

    International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition – 2004

    International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition (23 August)

    Organisations that monitor and advocate against slavery and forced labour and protect its victims


Mohandas Gandhi

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