Shocking report exposes world’s 40m slaves

In the shadows: Only 63,000 cases of slavery were reported worldwide last year.

Will slavery ever disappear? Over 150 years after America abolished the abhorrent practice, yesterday a shocking new report revealed that there were still 40.3m slaves in the world in 2016.

Mai was just 16 when she was trafficked from Vietnam into China to be sold as a child bride. “One day I got chatting to a guy on Facebook. He said he was a police officer and that he could find me better paid work in China.”

Mai went to meet the “police officer”, but was met instead by a group of men. They put her into a truck and drove her across the border, to be sold as a wife.

“When we stopped, I ran for it,” says Mai. “I was able to come back to Vietnam.” Mai was one of the lucky ones: she got away. For the 10m other child slaves in the world, there may be no escaping.

The latest figures were published yesterday by the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Of the 40.3m modern slaves in 2016, 24.9m were made to work and 15.4m were trapped in forced marriages.

This is the first time that reporting on slavery has included forced marriage. “If you have a situation where someone is sold into marriage and is providing free domestic labour and has no sexual autonomy… it’s often nothing less than slavery,” says Fiona David from the Walk Free Foundation.

Almost every civilisation in history has had slavery. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that some people were “natural slaves”, whereas others were born to rule. Two thousand years later, Adam Smith argued that humans have an instinctive desire to dominate others.

Britain has led the global fight against slavery in recent years. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act was the first of its kind in Europe and one of the first globally. Britain’s approach stands in contrast to that of Mauritania, which became the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1981.

In a speech at the UN General Assembly yesterday, Beate Andrees from the ILO identified migrant workers and employees in large companies as being at especially high risk of slavery. Nonetheless, the UN has set down detailed guidelines for businesses to follow, so that it can act if it identifies forced labour.

An ongoing struggle

“We can never hope to rid the world of slavery,” say some. Modern day slaves look just like you or me. No matter how many laws we put in place, we cannot help slaves if we do not know who they are. Unfortunately we have to accept that slavery will never be totally eradicated.

“That is just defeatist,” respond others. We live in an extraordinarily advanced time, with cutting-edge technology at our disposal to track down criminals. Britain’s laws are just the first step — Australia is now considering passing similar legislation. It is absolutely within our power to wipe out slavery.

You Decide

  1. Can we ever hope to totally wipe out slavery?
  2. Is death better than slavery?


  1. You are going on a protest march against slavery. In pairs, design (and make, if you have time) a banner which you and your friend can carry on the march. What would it say?
  2. Excluding British and American examples, find and research one other example of slavery from history. How do you think it compares to modern slavery?

Some People Say...

“Slavery is the ultimate and greatest evil.”

Sir Arthur Bryant, English historian.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There are many more female slaves than male. Of the 40.3m women and girls made up 71%, which translates into 29m. This is partly due to the inclusion of forced marriage in the figures, since the victims are almost always female.
What do we not know?
Whether the figure of 40.3m is accurate. Representatives from the ILO and Walk Free think that the true figure is almost certainly higher, as they could not collect data in some conflict zones or countries with restricted access for international organisations. The number of slaves may be substantial in these areas.

Word Watch

An ancient Greek philosopher who died in 322BC.
Adam Smith
An 18th century Scottish philosopher and economist.
A large country in the Maghreb region of north-west Africa.
Although Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, keeping slaves was not made into a criminal offence until 2007. Anti-slavery activists estimate that there are still 800,000 people held against their will, out of a population of 3.5m.
Migrant workers
The ILO estimated in 2013 that migrant workers accounted for 150m of the world's 232m international migrants.

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