Modern Slavery: 21 Million Human Beings Coerced into Jobs They Can Not Leave

Human Wrongs Watch

Almost 21 million women, men and children around the world are still victims of slavery and forced labour. They are trapped in jobs into which they were coerced or deceived and which they cannot leave. More than half of them are women and children. Children alone account for more than a quarter of today´s slaves*. 

Victims of forced labour by region | ILO

The victims are the most vulnerable – women and girls forced into prostitution, migrants trapped in debt bondage, and sweatshop or farm workers kept there by clearly illegal tactics and paid little or nothing, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The Asia-Pacific region accounts for the largest number of forced labourers in the world – 11.7 million (56 per cent) of the global total, followed by Africa at 3.7 million (18 per cent) and Latin America with 1.8 million victims (9 per cent), according to the ILO’s new global estimate.

Forced Labour in Numbers

  • Three out of every 1,000 people worldwide are in forced labour today.
  • 18.7 million (90 %) are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises. Of these, 4.5 million (22 per cent) are victims of forced sexual exploitation and 14.2 million (68 per cent) are victims of forced labour exploitation in economic activities, such as agriculture, construction, domestic work or manufacturing.
  • 2.2 million (10%) are in state-imposed forms of forced labour, for example in prisons, or in work imposed by the state military or by rebel armed forces.
  • 5.5 million (26 %) are below 18 years.
  • The number of victims per thousand inhabitants is highest in the central and south-eastern Europe and Africa regions at 4.2 and 4.0 per 1,000 inhabitants respectively. It is the lowest in the Developed Economies and European Union at 1.5 per 1,000 inhabitants.
  • The relatively high prevalence in central and south-eastern Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States can be explained by the fact that the population is much lower than for example in Asia and at the same time reports of trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation and of state-imposed forced labour in the region are numerous.
  • The Developed Economies and European Union have 1.5 million (7 per cent) forced labourers.
  • Central and south-eastern European countries, and the Commonwealth of Independent States account for 1.6 million (7 per cent).
  • There are an estimated 600,000 (3 per cent) victims in the Middle East.
  • 9.1 million victims (44 %) who have moved either internally or internationally. The majority, 11.8 million (56 %), are subjected to forced labour in their place of origin or residence. Cross-border movement is heavily associated with forced sexual exploitation.

“For all of us, having a decent job with a fair wage, having our fundamental rights protected and having access to minimum protection in times of need is a basic aspiration,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder.

“Sadly, even today, millions of women and men, boys and girls are caught in the nightmare of slavery and forced labour. That’s why the ILO is greatly encouraged to see so many leading artists join this fight. Together, we can make a positive difference and bring hope to those who yearn to work in freedom, equity, security and dignity.”

Rise of New Forms of Slavery

On 30 November 2012 , UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the 21st century has seen the rise of new forms of slavery, in a message to mark the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, in which he also urged Member States to increase their efforts in the fight against the dehumanizing scourge.**

In his statement marking the Day, celebrated each year on 2 December, Ban noted that despite the approval of the Slavery Convention 85 years ago in which signatories vowed to prevent and suppress the slave trade, the practice had acquired new manifestations as it adapted to an ever-changing world, UN reported.

Debt Bondage, Serfdom, Trafficking…

The Day’s focus is on eradicating contemporary forms of slavery, such as debt bondage, serfdom and forced labour; trafficking of persons and trafficking for the purpose of organ removal; sexual exploitation, the worst forms of child labour, and the forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, but also forced marriage, the sale of wives, widow inheritance.

“Over the past two decades, the Fund has assisted tens of thousands of victims of slavery in more than 90 countries. Yet the fund is in dire need of funding to fulfil its mandate and respond to the growing need,” Ban said as he appealed for governments and private enterprises to funnel investments into the Fund’s activities.

Forced Marriage

Drawing a particular emphasis on the nexus between bondage and forced marriage, the UN independent expert on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, also called for greater anti-slavery legislation, including the criminalization of all servile marriages.

“Women and girls who are forced to marry and find themselves in servile marriages for the rest of their lives,” Shahinian said in a statement for the Day. “Women and girls should not be forced to marry. Women and girls should not be forced to spend their life time in slavery. Nothing can justify that.”

The UN expert noted that women in servile marriages frequently experience human rights violations, such as domestic servitude and sexual slavery, and often suffer from violations to their right to health, education, non-discrimination and freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence.

She added, however, that solely focusing on the criminalization of servile marriages would not succeed in effectively combating the problem.

“Such legislation should go hand in hand with community programmes to help detect, provide advice, rehabilitation, education and shelter where necessary,” the statement continued. “Public awareness raising campaigns should be implemented to highlight the nature and harm caused by forced and early marriages.”

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs like Shahinian, are appointed in an honorary capacity by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme.

*Source: ILO release,

**Source: UN release.

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