About Human Trafficking

Contemporary Forms of Human Trafficking and Slavery

Bonded labor

The most common form of modern slavery, occurs when people are forced to work to repay loans or monetary advances. Typically, these loans amount to $50 or less but are coupled with extremely high interest rates so that recipients are perpetually indebted to lenders. Worldwide, 20 million people work as bonded laborers, primarily in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Brazil, and the Caribbean.

Forced labor

Forced labor occurs when people are illegally recruited by governments, political parties, or private individuals and forced to work under the threat of violence. Multitudes of children across the globe are forced to work in dangerous or exploitative conditions. Many are inhumanely compelled to do manual labor, while many others are bought or kidnapped to be exploited in prostitution and pornography. Tens of thousands of women are bought, kidnapped, or lured by false promises and then trafficked into domestic and manual work or sexual exploitation. In some cultures women and girls are forced into marriages in which they function as slaves.

Traditional or Chattel Slavery

Finally, traditional or chattel slavery continues even now as people are bought and sold as commodities in direct violation of current law. Chattel slavery is most common in West Africa, particularly Mauritania, where people are abducted from villages and sold locally as slaves.

articlepicbricksThese categories are not mutually exclusive and frequently overlap. Contracts may be issued to chattel slaves in order to conceal their enslavement. Girls may be trapped into prostitution by debt bondage and will sometimes have contracts that specify their obligations. The one dimension common every type of slavery is violence; slavery in all its forms depends on violence to keep slaves in place. For some, violence looms in the form of threats, while for others threats escalate into terrible abuse.

Modern slaves are typically used in simple, non-technological labor, most commonly in agriculture, but also in brick-making, mining, quarrying, gem working, jewelry making, cloth and carpet weaving, domestic service, prostitution, and pornography. Slaves are also forced to clear forests, to make charcoal, and to work in shops.

The products of slave labor reach into homes around the world. Large international corporations, sometimes acting in ignorance through subsidiaries in the developing world, take advantage of slave labor to improve the bottom line and increase dividends to shareholders. Slave-made carpets, fireworks, jewelry, metal goods, as well as grains, sugar, and other foods harvested by slaves are imported directly to North America and Europe.

The value of slaves to their masters resides not so much in products or craftsmanship, but in the sheer volume of work they are driven to perform. Some slaves are forced to sleep next to looms or brick kilns, while others are chained to work tables. For slaves across the globe, to be awake is to be at work for the slavemaster.

One of the standard explanations that multinational corporations give for closing factories in the developed world and opening them in the developing world is lower labor costs. Whether corporations realize it or not, slavery sometimes constitutes a significant part of these savings.

The engine of modern slavery is thus economics rather than race or ethnicity. The question is no longer “Are they the right color to be enslaved?”, but “Are they vulnerable enough to be enslaved?” Slaves in a given area may tend to be ethnic minority in ackground, but the primary reason for their enslavement is simply that their poverty and powerlessness has left them easy prey for those powerful and ruthless enough to enslave them.

Human Trafficking: The Contributing Factors


Several factors have contibuted to the rise of the new slavery. The first is the tripling of world population since World War II—from 2 to 6 billion—largely in countries where slavery is most prevalent today. Across Southeast Asia, South America, the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and the Arab countries, exploding populations are overwhelmingly young and poor. As sheer numbers overrun resources and employment opportunities, people become desperate and life becomes cheap. Especially in those areas where slavery had persisted or was part of the historic culture, the population explosion enlarged the pool and lowered the price of new slaves.

Social and Economic Change

The second factor is rapid social and economic change. In many developing countries modernization has tended to enhance the wealth of the elite few and to deepen the poverty of the masses. During the past fifty years, Africa and Asia have been scarred by civil wars and dictatorial regimes which have confiscated national resources, often with the active or tacit support of one of the superpowers. Although modernization has in some instances been accompanied by improvements for the larger society in terms of better access to health care and education, the concentration of land in the hands of the privileged and powerful, the forced shift from subsistence to cash-crop agriculture, and government policies that suppress farm income in favor of cheap food for the cities have all helped bankrupt millions of peasants and drive them from their land.

Government Corruption and Social Chaos

In Europe and North America the police fight organized crime; in Thailand the police are organized crime. If slavery can be concealed in countries like Great Britain, it is not hard to imagine how slavery thrives in countries where government officials profit from it. The extreme profitability of slavery means that slaveholders can buy political power and acceptance. In Thailand, Pakistan, India, and Brazil, local police serve both as enforcers of fraudulent contracts and as bounty hunters for runaway slaves.

This disintegration of civil order often occurs in times of rapid social and political change. A community under stress—whether precipitated by disease, natural disaster, economic depression, or war—can rapidly descend into chaos. These conditions are found, for example, in the frontier areas of Brazil and at the rural/urban interface in Thailand. Transitional economies in these locales drive farming families off the land and into poverty while fostering a demand for unskilled labor in cities. Destitution leads to the collapse of traditional systems of family or community support for the most vulnerable, and these systems are not replaced with effective state welfare measures. Without a safety net, the poor become powerless and easily exploited by the ruthless.

Slavery blossoms in precisely these circumstances. To control their slaves, slaveholders must be able to use violence with impunity, and the decentralization of violence in the hands and weapons of local police or soldiers provides slaveholders with the control they need.

These factors—exploding population, economic change, and government corruption—have collaborated to fuel the new slavery. More than any other time in human history, there is a super-abundance of potential slaves. Consistent with the law of supply and demand, slaves are now so cheap that they have become cost effective in many new kinds of work, thus revolutionizing how they are regarded and used. Like appliances which are cheaper to replace than to repair, slaves are now disposable commodities. Slaveholders get all the work they can out of their slaves and then throw them away.

It is this element of disposability which chiefly distinguishes the new slavery from the old. Slaves in the American South were protected like valuable livestock. Ownership was legal and long-term. In their own self-interest, slave owners had incentive to protect the health of slaves and to encourage them to have offspring since raising new generations of slaves was cheaper than buying slaves as adults. By contrast, today’s slavery is relatively short-term, lasting only as long as profitability allows. If slaves get sick, they are allowed to die. If slaves become disabled, they are discarded. If female slaves become pregnant, especially those exploited in prostitution, they suffer violent, forcible abortions. The old slavery was horrific, but the new slavery is horrific beyond measure.