Slavery Today

Slavery Today

This page was updated in 2020. 

By Rachel Kahn-Troster (adapted from T’ruah’s Fighting Modern-Day Slavery: A Handbook for Jewish Communities; the first paragraph is adapted from

Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it is practiced everywhere, including in the United States and Israel. Today, tens of millions of people are enslaved around the world, a higher number but lower percentage than ever before. Slaves are also cheaper than ever. The cost to buy a human being as chattel is far lower now, adjusted for inflation, than it was before American Civil War.

Many modern slaves are not bought and sold directly. However, the readily available supply of cheap labor devalues human life: it is easier for employers to use violence, coercion, and fraud to keep workers from fleeing, knowing they will be unable to recoup fees paid for travel and housing or secure better work elsewhere. Poverty and migration are some of the leading drivers of modern-day slavery. As a result, freeing people directly from situations of forced labor is only the first stepping in solving this human rights atrocity. We must prioritize prevention of trafficking by addressing its root causes and work directly with the most vulnerable populations to understand their specific needs and community and worker-driven solutions.

What is the official definition of modern slavery? 
Both American and international law recognize modern-day slavery as first and foremost a crime of exploitation. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), slavery refers to: “...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.” The ILO uses the term “forced labor” as its preferred shorthand term, as it is an umbrella term that covers many kinds of abuses, including the outright sale of human beings, trafficking across borders, and various forms of indentured servitude.

In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines victims of trafficking as:

a) Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or 

b) The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. 

The ILO conservatively estimates that 22 million people are held in bondage today. The US State Department will cite figures of roughly 27-30 million. Some NGOs will cite figures that are higher, depending on their methodology.

What does modern slavery look like?
According to the International Labor Organization, 18.7 million (90%) are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises, including 4.5 million (22%) who are victims of forced sexual exploitation and 14.2 million (68%) who are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities, such as agriculture, construction, domestic work or manufacturing. An additional 2.2 million (10%) are in state-imposed forms of forced labor, for example in prisons, or in work imposed by the state military or by rebel armed forces (such as child soldiers).

Slavery is a crime of exploitation, not movement. People can be enslaved in their own village, city, or country, without ever crossing an international border.

Slavery happens everywhere in the world. American citizens can also be victims of human trafficking, even without leaving the country. Victims – both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens – have been identified in cities, suburbs, and rural areas in all 50 states as well as in Washington, DC.  Trafficked individuals work in places such as private homes, factories, restaurants, agriculture, nursing homes, state fairs, construction sites, forced prostitution, and nail salons. 

Slavery is the extreme end of a continuum of abusive and exploitative labor practices. Slavery is fueled by systems of poverty, the population explosion, displacement to urban centers and other forms of migration, desperation, and government corruption and inaction. While awareness about sex trafficking is higher, more people globally face forms of labor trafficking. Sexual violence is often a feature of all forms of trafficking, whether men or women. In the United States, migrant workers (including temporary work visa holders) are particularly vulnerable to trafficking.

Families living in poverty can become targets of human traffickers who promise vulnerable men, women and children a better life through employment, educational opportunities or marriage. In Western countries, runaway and homeless youth, many of whom identify as LGBTQ, are particularly at risk from traffickers. Throughout the world, greater access to education, health care, food, credit, reduced corruption, and police protection helps to prevent and reduce trafficking.

People who are trafficked are not necessarily slaves who are chained up or locked behind a door. Force, fraud and coercion are major components of modern slavery. Human trafficking is often characterized by limited mobility and threats of violence to prevent escape.  Employers may steal passports, psychologically control victims, or use violence or threats of violence against the trafficked persons and/or their families to keep victims from leaving. Debt to a trafficker (real or inflated), combined with threats of violence, keeps victims from fleeing.

Products that we buy every day such as coffee, tea, produce, clothes, chocolate, tomatoes, computers, and cars, may be traceable to slave labor.  The ILO estimates that 70% of cacao beans, for example, are picked by slaves. Statistically speaking, if you are not buying Fair Trade chocolate, then you are buying slave-trade.  Companies must take responsibility for all aspects of their supply chains. They must collaborate with their workers to creates comprehensive codes for suppliers that are rigorously monitored, with violations for forced labor and other labor and safety abuses strictly enforced.

As consumers, we can use our purchasing dollars to support the rights of workers around the globe and fight the root causes of forced labor.

As investors, we can demand that publicly-traded companies we invest in conduct their business transparently and ethically, ensuring that no human beings are harmed in creating their products and services.  Many corporate social responsibility efforts are more focused on brand protection than cultivation of human rights. We must insist that corporate codes of conduct for suppliers are developed with the leadership and participation of at-risk workers, protect workers from retaliation if they report human rights abuses such as human trafficking, and include strict auditing and enforcement, with market consequences for failure to prevent human trafficking.

As Jews, our story of peoplehood begins with the journey from slavery to freedom, a journey that results in the commandment to “love the stranger.” We have two responsibility that flow from that commandment: to raise awareness about modern-day slavery and to take action to ensure that the 27 million people who continue to suffer as we did can journey towards redemption.