Modern Slavery 101

Contrary to popular belief, slavery didn’t end with Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Experts estimate that today there are 27 million people enslaved around the world. It’s happening in countries on all six inhabited continents. And yes, that includes the United States. The CIA estimates 14,500 to 17,000 victims are trafficked into the “Land of the Free” every year.

Why hasn’t more been done to end a dehumanizing, universally condemned practice? One challenge is that slavery today takes on myriad, subtler forms than it did during the Atlantic Slave Trade — including sex trafficking, debt bondage, forced domestic or agricultural labor, and chattel slavery — making it tougher to identify and eradicate.

Types of Slavery

CHATTEL SLAVERY is closest to the slavery that prevailed in early American history. Chattel slaves are considered their masters’ property — exchanged for things like trucks or money and expected to perform labor and sexual favors. Once of age, their children are expected to do the same. Chattel slavery is typically racially-based; in the North African country of Mauritania, for example, black Africans serve the lighter-skinned Arab-Berber communities. Though slavery was legally abolished there in 1980, today 90,000 slaves continue to serve the Muslim Berber ruling class. Similarly, in the African country of Sudan, Arab northerners are known to raid the villages in the South — killing all the men and taking the women and children to be auctioned off and sold into slavery.

DEBT BONDAGE, or bonded labor, is the most widely practiced form of slavery around the world. In Southeast Asia, where it is most prevalent, debt bondage claims an estimated 15 to 20 million victims. The staggering poverty there forces many parents to offer themselves or their own children as collateral against a loan. Though they are promised they will work only until their debt is paid off, the reality is much grimmer. Thanks to inflated interest rates and fresh debts incurred while being fed and housed, the debt becomes impossible to pay off. As a result, it is often inherited by the bonded laborer’s children, perpetuating a vicious cycle that can claim several generations.

SEX SLAVERY finds women and children forced into prostitution. Many are lured by false offers of a good job and then beaten and forced to work in brothels. In Southeast Asia, however, it is not uncommon to find women coerced by their own husbands, fathers, and brothers to earn money for the men in the family to pay back local money lenders. In other cases, victims pay tens of thousands of dollars to get to another country and are then forced into prostitution in pay off their own debts. In still others, women or girls are plainly kidnapped from their home countries. The sex slavery trade thrives in Central and Eastern Europe and in North America. An estimated two million women and children are sold into sex slavery around the world every year.

FORCED LABOR often results when individuals are lured by the promise of a good job but instead find themselves subjected to slaving conditions — working without payment and enduring physical abuse, often in harsh and hazardous conditions. Victims include domestic workers, construction workers, and even human mine detectors. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, as their constant changes of location make the organized crime rings that traffic them difficult to bust.