Anti-Slavery Day highlights secret world of abuse

Even in the modern world, millions of people globally are still being held as slaves. Slavery now keeps to the shadows – but it remains frighteningly easy to deprive someone of their freedom.

Slavery has been illegal in Britain for nearly two centuries and in the USA for one and a half. It was outlawed by the UN in 1956. Now, ten years into the 21st Century? It's going strong.

Today is Anti-Slavery Day – a new annual event which aims to draw attention to what is, astonishingly, still a very real problem. Modern slavery is less obvious that it was in the past but, in subtle and hidden forms, it affects every country in the world.

How does slavery survive? The sad truth is, it's surprisingly easy to deprive someone of their freedom. Debt, for example, can enslave. 'Bonded labourers' (especially common in South Asia) owe money to powerful landlords who force them to work in order to pay this money back. Debts can be transferred from parents to children, and some families have been 'bonded' for generations.

Young people can easily be enslaved. Worldwide, there are an estimated 115 million children working in what are called 'the worst forms of child labour'. Around eight million of these are effectively slaves. Bought and sold like animals, they can be forced into the drugs trade, prostitution or armed service.

Marriage can be a disguise for slavery. In some countries, young women and girls are forced into marriages with often much older men. For many, this means a life of socially sanctioned servitude, sexual abuse and physical violence.

Even the law can be a tool of oppression. Illegal immigrants often pay thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the EU or the USA. When they arrive, gangmasters ruthlessly exploit them, paying pitiful wages for hard labour and using the threat of legal deportation as a tool of control.

Jiera, from Lithuania, was one of the vulnerable ones. An ordinary 17-year-old when she arrived in Britain for a short holiday, she was kidnapped by criminals and lived as a slave for two years before she finally escaped. Her story is far from unique. Violence, hunger, intimidation, psychological abuse, threats against family – these are powerful weapons that millions around the world have found themselves unable to resist.

Invisible problem

Some will say that slavery today doesn't compare to the horrific abuses of the past. There are no longer ships packed with suffering humans sailing freely across the Atlantic. The atrocities once perpetrated against slaves in Haitian plantations or Roman arenas have no modern parallel.

True – slavery is now an invisible problem. Modern slaves wear no chains or brands to mark them out. But campaigners say that the essence is the same. People are still being treated as property. That surely, is something that should not be allowed to stand.

You Decide

  1. How could someone in your country be enslaved?
  2. How would you define slavery? How would you define freedom? It's not always as clear as you might think.


  1. What could you, personally, do to combat slavery? Develop an idea and suggest it to your class.
  2. Do some further research into one particular form of slavery. How does it work and how can it be prevented?

Some People Say...

“No one is ever truly free.”

What do you think?

Q & A

If slavery is illegal, why don't slaves just go to the police?
In some places, criminals are more powerful than police, or forms of forced labour are socially accepted so police turn a blind eye.
What about in other places?
With slaves who are from abroad, criminals sometimes take their passports leaving them unable to travel. Worse yet, criminals gangs can threaten to hurt slaves' families back at home.
But not all slaves are foreign!
No. Some are just frightened and broken, their ability to resist fatally undermined by years of abuse and mental torture. This category covers more people than you might think.

Word Watch

Armed service
There are around 300,000 child soldiers in the world today, forced to fight and kill from as young as five or six years old.
Gangmasters are people who supply labour for temporary low skilled jobs, especially in agriculture or in mines and factories. Some operate legally. Others are on the fringes of legality. Others still exploit illegal immigrants and are essentially slavers.
Haitian plantations
The trans-Atlantic slave trade saw around 15 million Africans forcibly deported from their homes and brought to America or the Caribbean by European traders. Most suffered terrible abuse, working on huge farms called plantations. Some of the worst atrocities took place in Haiti, where life expectancy for arriving slaves was a matter of months.
Roman arenas
The economy of ancient Rome was founded on slaves. Some were born into slavery – others were captured in war. Some slaves, famously, were forced to fight to the death as gladiators for the amusement of the Roman people.


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