A boy makes shoes in the factory

Anthropology: Modern Slavery Around the World and Social Implications

Modern-day slavery is a contemporary issue in every society around the world. It refers to the severe exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain. The problem of slavery dates back to 3500BC and operated in the first civilizations. It is everywhere, although it is hidden. Many people are enslaved by making our clothes, serving food, picking crops, working in factories, or working in houses as cooks, nannies, or cleaners. In addition to this, slavery means that people are being controlled through violence and threats. Those in slavery are often forced into debt, have their passports taken away, and are threatened with deportation.

In this article, I am going to look at the types of modern slavery and how it impacts individuals and society. I will also attempt to analyze what has been done to tackle the problem, and how it can be improved.

History of Slavery

Slavery in Ancient Egypt
Slavery in Ancient Egypt (histclo.com)

Slavery has been found to exist in most cultures, nationalities, and religions. Slavery started in civilizations such as Sumer in Mesopotamia and was widespread in the ancient world, found in almost every other ancient civilization, such as the Roman Empire, ancient Egypt, ancient China, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, ancient Greece, ancient India, the Arab Islamic Caliphate and Sultanate, Nubia and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas. Ancient slavery related to a mixture of debt-slavery, punishment for crime, the enslavement of prisoners of war, child abandonment, and the birth of slave children to slaves.

Slavery became less common throughout Europe during the Early Middle Ages, although it was still operating in some areas. Islamic slavery was prominent in Western and Central Asia, Northern and Eastern Africa, India, and Europe from the 7th to the 20th century. After the 1600s, the key nations that played a significant role in the Atlantic slave trade were the Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, British, and a number of West African kingdoms.

Despite the fact that, nowadays, slavery is illegal everywhere in the world (except penal labor), human trafficking is still a prominent problem in every country. This generates billions of dollars of profit every year. Meanwhile, globalization and modern transportation make it easier for people to be trafficked anywhere in the world.

Modern Slavery

Modern slavery is estimated to affect 40 million people in the world. 1 in 4 of them are children, and 71% are girls and women. According to the Global Slavery Index, one in every 130 females globally is living in modern slavery. In addition to this, 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry are women. The Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, states that 58% of victims in other sectors are also women. Thus, it is clear women are disproportionately affected by this problem. This means that gender inequality and discrimination created by different expectations imposed on daughters by society are equal to the higher prevalence of modern slavery.

However, it should not be ignored that men and boys are also victims of modern slavery. A significant number of men (21%) and boys (7%) are trafficked into forced labor in agriculture, construction, and manufacturing. The majority of victims of organ removal are, in fact, male.

Where Does Modern Slavery Take Place?

Statistical data on modern slavery
The number of victims of modern slavery per 1,000 people, different regions of the world (2017) (world101.cfr.org)

It has been found that modern slavery is more prominent in countries with a greater gender gap in health, education, and economic status. According to the International Labour Office (2017), the number of victims per 1,000 people is the highest in Asia i.e. forced labor and Africa i.e. forced marriages.

Globalization is considered one of the reasons why there are so many victims of modern slavery. Industries around the world rely on low-skilled or unskilled labor, and companies seek cheaper solutions due to competition. As a consequence, the clothes we wear, the coffee we drink, and the smartphones we use, could all include forced labor during the process of their production.

The Different Forms of Modern Slavery

Modern slavery can take various shapes and forms. The main, most common types are as follows:

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking comes in many forms and harms both adults and children in countries rich and poor. This form of modern slavery earns traffickers annual profits of at least $150 billion, which means that it is one of the world’s most profitable crimes.

Human trafficking refers to the trapping and exploitation of a person. This is done through either deception, violence, coercion, or all. People are transported, recruited, or harbored in order to be exploited for forced prostitution, labor, criminality, marriage, or organ removal. Different forms of modern slavery are interconnected.

Forced Labor

Forced labor is considered any work or service that people are forced to do against their will under the threat of punishment. Forced labor includes sex trafficking and state-imposed forced labor (where governments compel individuals to work – often in the military, in prisons, and on national infrastructure projects). In 2016, there were an estimated 16 million forced laborers in private sectors around the world.

Bonded Labor

Bonded labor is also known as debt bondage and it is the world’s most widespread form of slavery. This form of slavery is defined as demanding labor from a person to repay their debts. People who are living in poverty are the most affected by this form of modern slavery. They are coerced into working for minimal or no pay, they lose control over their employment conditions and their debt. Their debt can be passed onto the next generations.

Descent-Based Slavery

In this form of slavery, people are treated as property and their “slave” status was passed down the maternal line, thus they are deemed to be in slavery. This is the most traditional form of slavery, most commonly occurring in hierarchal societies.

Slavery of Children

A boy makes shoes in the factory
A Syrian boy makes shoes in a factory in southern Turkey (theguardian.com)

Children are the most vulnerable group affected by modern slavery. Children can be easily manipulated, tricked, and controlled. They are less likely to demand better pay or working conditions in comparison with adults. They are exploited for child trafficking, child soldiers, child marriage, and child domestic slavery. An estimated 10 million children around the world are affected by modern child slavery. Those children have been forced into terrible working conditions in:

  • agriculture, factories, sweatshops and construction, mines, the tourist industry, and private homes
  • sexual exploitation used for profit in prostitution, pornography, or other forms of sexual exploitation
  • begging, petty crime, and drug trade
  • to take part in armed conflicts, as child soldiers, porters, or ‘wives’ for soldiers and militia members

Forced and Early Marriage

A girl holding a sign saying "Child Not Bride"

Forced marriage occurs when someone is married against their will. Early marriage is another human rights violation that takes away a girl’s right to childhood, education and limits her opportunities for growth and stability. Most child marriages are considered slavery, especially if they have not given informed consent and are controlled in the marriage with no possibility of leaving. Early marriage affects the victim’s health, due to increased violence, abuse, rape, and sexual assault, and early pregnancy. It also comes with a high risk of internal mortality and morbidity. Despite the fact that child marriage has now been decreasing around the world, the progress has been found to be uneven between countries and societies. In some places, forced and early marriage is still the norm.

Causes of Modern Slavery

root causes: forced labour in global supply chains
Root causes of forced labor in global supply chains (opendemocracy.net)

There are various reasons why slavery still exists and why there are so many victims. A  combination of vulnerability, psychological coercion, and most commonly, debt bondage or indentured servitude are considered to be the main reason why people fall victim to slavery. Often, victims of labor exploitation enter into relationships with their captors voluntarily. They are not physically restrained but can be psychologically manipulated and deceived.

It has also been found that victims of modern-day slavery tend to be low-skilled laborers or migrants with very limited or no life opportunities due to the circumstances that they have been born into. They are often promised false opportunities that will allow them to provide for their families in a distant city or country. The promise of a good job and good income deteriorates into long hours of (usually physical work) with no way of returning home. For example, traffickers offer women from rural areas waitressing jobs in the capital city of a different country, only to seize their passports and force them into sex work.

Overall, the causes of modern slavery can be divided into the following:


One of the biggest contributors to modern slavery, especially human trafficking, is poverty. Promises of better job opportunities are offered by traffickers. Poverty drives people to migrate to another city or country with the belief of a better income and a better future overall.

Lack of education

This is another root cause of slavery today. Lack of education can lead to a lack of knowledge of rights, as well as decreased opportunities for work at a living wage. Education can prevent modern slavery by educating, not just the most vulnerable groups, but the society as a whole, which can act when they recognize any sign of modern slavery.

Demand for cheap labor/demand for sex

Opportunities to capture and exploit people are also rooted in the demands for cheap labor and commercialized sex. The more customers, the higher prices and the larger the profit for the product or service.

Lack of human rights for vulnerable groups

Another cause of modern slavery is the lack of human rights for vulnerable people. Many governments do not recognize some forms of modern slavery as exploitation. If people who are marginalized lack the protection of the government and the law, they can easily become victims of modern slavery.

Lack of  economic opportunities

Migrants who have no work permits, people who lack education, or live where there are not many job opportunities (for example in rural areas) are more prone to fall victim to modern slavery. In addition to this, gender and ethnicity play a significant role in the causes of modern slavery. Especially if gender and certain ethnicity intersect. It has been found that women and certain ethnic groups, who are discriminated against and unable to find a job due to this, are more likely to become victims.

Social factors and cultural practices

Each society in the world has its own norms and values. In some countries, certain practices, such as selling children to pay off debt are considered a norm. This factor can also lead victims to not speak about their experiences or the captors/traffickers themselves.

Conflict and natural disaster

Another factor that can cause modern slavery is conflict and natural disasters, which can cause economic instability and lack of human rights, giving captors more opportunities to benefit from their victims.

Profit for captors

The main cause of modern slavery, however, has always been profit. Cheap labor and high costs for products or services drive slavery today.

Lack of safe migration options

Illegal smuggling used as a way to trick people into forced labor or sex trafficking is especially easy when there are safety concerns in the country that the victim comes from.

Global Impact of Modern Slavery

Modern slavery started locally but affects every country around the world. It impacts the individual victims, both mentally and physically, it affects their rights, life opportunities, and freedom, but it also impacts the wider society. The issue benefits criminal organizations and terrorist groups and undermines global peace and security. It destabilizes communities and prevents global development. Moreover, modern slavery is operating as an illicit industry that generates multibillions of dollars. This, in turn, weakens the global economy.

Global Efforts to End Modern Slavery

People campaigning on the street against slavery
Anti-Slavery campaign in the UK (antislavery.org)

According to the 2019 Global Slavery Index, the UK is the country that takes the most action to respond to modern slavery. Along with France, the Netherlands, and Australia, the UK is among the handful of nations in the world that have introduced legislation to tackle the problem of modern slavery in the last 10 years.

In the UK, the Modern Slavery Act (2015), Modern Slavery is an umbrella term for a variety of criminal offenses. It required business organizations with worldwide revenues of at least £36 million ($45 million) to provide and publish annual slavery and trafficking statements. In 2010, California introduced similar legislation, also requiring businesses to deliver transparent information about what they are doing to prevent the issue in their supply chains. In 2019, the Dutch senate has established a similar approach. They passed strict supply chain diligence law aimed at companies that provide any goods or services to the Dutch market, with respect to child labor in supply chains.

However, David Westlake, CEO of International Justice Mission UK, suggests that transparency does not necessarily lead to action. According to Westlake, the UK should follow countries such as France in their approach to tackling modern slavery. In 2018, the French Government established a new law requiring businesses to identify risks to human rights and the environment in which they function. The French system is the only system by far that has actual sanctions. Fines of even 10 million euros can be incurred if companies are found to have failed to comply with the law.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Modern slavery continues to be a complex issue in the contemporary world. It affects millions of people worldwide by stripping them of their freedom. It takes place on a national and global scale. Yet it is still often unrecognized, despite the successful efforts of different governments around the world to reduce it, through punishment for the perpetrators and provision for victims.

The efforts to tackle modern slavery, however, are only groundwork. It is necessary to also eliminate the vulnerability of people to slavery, which, in turn, will reduce the number of potential victims. This could be as (if not more) effective, as intimidating and punishing perpetrators. Sanctions, fines, and punishments are, of course, not completely ineffective, but they are not enough to eradicate this complex issue, as modern slavery will not stop if people continue to be vulnerable and able to be coerced or forced.

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