Skip to content
Society, Politics & Law

Slavery: A Modern-Day Problem

Updated Monday 25th July 2005

Beth Hertzfeld reveals how slavery is not consigned to the history books, but still very much a worldwide facet of modern life

Sam Sharpe Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

The word ‘slavery’ conjures up images of abuses that many believe were consigned to history by the victories of the 19th century abolitionist movement. But in reality, slavery continues today.

Millions of women, children and men throughout the world are forced to work through the threat or use of violence, are denied freedom or are physically constrained, dehumanised and treated as property, or bought and sold. No region is free from this abuse and slavery is found in most countries, even though it is illegal under international law.

Slavery takes many forms and affects people of all ages and race. Boys as young as four years old are abducted from their families in South Asia to be used as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates; in West Africa young girls are used as domestic slaves; young men in Brazil are used as forced labour to clear the Amazon making way for cattle farms; and women are trafficked to western Europe and forced into prostitution.

Boy working as camel jockey Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission
Copyright Anti-Slavery International

One of the fastest growing forms of slavery is human trafficking. Traffickers prey on people in impoverished areas who are excluded from opportunities or are in societies destroyed by war and other turmoil. They promise well-paid work, education and training that is unobtainable at home. Desperate to improve their lives, people are lured, tricked or coerced away from their homes into conditions they have not agreed to.

Leela’s experience is characteristic of this. She was taken from India to the United Kingdom with promises of well-paid work as a domestic servant. On her arrival the reality was quite different. She was made to work from 6.30am to 11.30pm every day, with only one hour off each week. She was forced to sleep on the kitchen floor and her ‘employers’ locked her in the house when they went out. They took her passport, telling her that if she left her job, she would be deported back to India. Even though she was promised £150 per week, she received nothing.

A 2004 United States Government report estimates around 800,000 people are trafficked across borders each year — this figure, however, does not include those who are trafficked within their own country.

Trafficking is only one of many forms of slavery in the world today. In Niger at least 43,000 people are enslaved as a result of being born into an established slave class. They are used as herders, agricultural labourers and as domestic servants. Everything that a highborn nomadic household needs to have done is carried out by slaves. Many are subjected to torture and other forms of humiliating and degrading treatment, including rape, physical abuse and threats.

Regardless of their age, they work every day without pay and are denied the freedom to make choices, whether it is deciding when to eat and sleep or whom they marry.

Sam Sharpe Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Altena was in slavery for 53 years in Niger. “I spent all day pounding millet and gathering water from distant deep wells, sometimes I herded young camels. I also had to collect firewood, prepare meals, milk the camels and goats, prepare tea and fold and move the master’s tent.” These are all heavy and arduous chores. The tent alone can be made up of around 200 goat skins and has to be moved four times a day to ensure that the master and his family are always shaded from the strong sun.

Altena and tarirafraf Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission
Copyright Anti-Slavery International

These slaves are not shackled, but are tied to the master psychologically. The slave owner uses the belief that the master is god, and that slaves may only enter paradise on his or her word.

But in spite of this, slaves have managed to escape. Assibit, having been in slavery for 50 years, decided to leave after she had been forced to stand all night to serve as a tent post during a violent storm. She walked 30 kilometres to freedom.

After years of pressure, the Niger government introduced a law criminalizing slavery in 2003, making it punishable by up to 30 years in prison. It now has the chance to end centuries of slavery, but implementation is key if the law is to have any effect.

One of the most extensive forms of slavery is bonded labour, which alone affects millions of people. It is most prevalent in South Asia, and even though India outlawed this form of slavery almost 30 years ago, followed by Pakistan and Nepal, the abuse is widespread.

People become bonded when their labour is demanded as repayment for a loan. Usually they are forced by necessity or are tricked into taking a loan in order to pay for such basic needs as food, medicine, and for social obligations such as the costs of a wedding or a funeral. To repay the loan, bonded labourers are typically forced to work long hours regardless of their age or health, for up to seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Entire families can be enslaved in this way, with the debt passed from generation to generation. Trapped in this cycle, bonded labourers find it almost impossible to pay off their debts. Poverty, long hours of hard labour, poor diet and lack of access to medical care mean they frequently become ill. Yet time off work due to illness is added to the debt, perpetuating the cycle of bondage.

In India, Tyaiya Lal Shetha was 12 years old when he became a bonded labourer. His father had already worked as a bonded labourer for 10 years after borrowing 3,000 rupees (US $65) from the same landlord. But when he became too old to work, he was told to send Tyaiya to work instead. Tyaiya is now 25 and has been working for 13 years for a loan he never took out. He has to work from early in the morning, ploughing, planting, harvesting and doing any other work the landlord demands, regardless of the hour. In return, he gets 1.5 kilograms of rice, which the landlord requires Tyaiya’s mother collect. However, before she is given the rice, she has to clean his house.

Actors playing William Wilberforce and fellow MPs Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

In South Asia, bonded labourers are traditionally used in agriculture, brick making, stone quarries, silk production, carpet weaving and bidi (cigarette) making; but can be found in many other areas.

Slave working in the fields Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission
Copyright Anti-Slavery International

They are routinely threatened with and subjected to physical and sexual violence. Even though few cases involve keeping them in chains, the constraints are just as binding. Their lives are controlled by those who are owed the debt, to the extent where those who use bonded labour sometimes sell the debts – and thereby the people – on to others. In Pakistan, brick kiln workers tell of being sold more than 10 times.

But, however large the problem of slavery is for the world today, solutions are possible.

Poverty, lack of political will, people’s willingness to exploit those most vulnerable and social acceptance all contribute to the survival of slavery and must be addressed.

It is vital governments develop and implement laws that criminalise the specific forms of slavery in their countries, and ensure an end to the impunity that leaves those who use slaves unpunished.

Governments also need to work with local and international non-governmental organisations to make sure the means are developed to help former slaves live free and independent lives. In addressing the social acceptance of slavery, governments need to support activities that make communities and society as a whole aware of slavery, particularly where it is an accepted norm, and develop alternatives.

Poverty alleviation is essential to securing the long-term elimination of slavery. Development programmes being devised by governments and international agencies to meet the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal of widespread poverty reduction must be aware of the existence of slavery and its causes. Only in this way will the education programmes and development measures, such as micro-credit and job provision schemes, offer real opportunities to end the exploitation and discrimination that continue to hold people in slavery.



For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?