Slavery is an ancient crime. Is there anything new about slavery today?

Throughout history, slavery has meant the complete and violent control of one person by another, the use of slaves for economic gain, and work for no payment. The one part of slavery that is new is the complete collapse in the price of slaves. For most of human history slaves were expensive, the average cost being around $40,000 in today’s money. That price has now fallen to an all-time historical low.The average slave costs around $90 today. This dramatic change in the economic equation of slavery means that slaves have stopped being capital purchase items and are now disposable inputs in economic processes.

What drives slavery in the 21st century?

There are more people in slavery today than at any time in human history: 21-30 million. This growth in the number of slaves is driven by the population explosion, widespread impoverishment of people and their resulting vulnerability, and government corruption so that people are not protected from the violence of enslavement. 

What is the difference between human trafficking and slavery?

Slavery is when one person completely controls another person, using violence to maintain that control, exploits them economically, pays them nothing and they cannot walk away. Human trafficking is the modern day slave trade— the process of enslaving a person. It happens when someone is tricked or kidnapped or coerced, and then taken into slavery. If moving a person from one place to another does not result in slavery, then it is not human trafficking. The term ‘human trafficking’ often has a specific legal definition based on the laws of countries or states or the conventions of international organizations, and those official definitions differ slightly from place to place. For example, under US law, anyone under 18 who is in prostitution is considered a trafficking victim.

Where are most of the world's slaves?

There are slaves in almost every country. The majority of the world’s slaves are in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal). Many are held in debt bondage slavery, a system in which a person (and often his or her family as well) are held as collateral against a loan. Because they are collateral, their work does not repay the debt but ‘belongs’ to the moneylender. Unable to earn money independently, the family is unable to repay the illegal debt and it is passed down from generation to generation, creating hereditary enslavement. Africa and South America both have large numbers of slaves in some areas, and the recent increase in human trafficking is bringing thousands of slaves to many countries in Europe, North America and Southeast Asia.

Is there slavery in the United States?

Free the Slaves’ best estimate, through a study we did with the University of California, Berkeley in 2004, is that there are at least 10,000 people in slavery in the United States at any given time. The US government estimates that 14,500-17,500 people are trafficked into the US each year. Free the Slaves believes that further research is needed to uncover the full extent of the problem in the US. It is already clear, however, that slavery is a significant problem in the United States, and not just in the major urban areas. We found documented cases of slavery and human trafficking in at least 90 cities throughout the country. The majority of victims are enslaved in domestic work, farm labor, or the sex industry. Most are brought from other countries into the US through force, fraud or coercion and then forced to work for no pay. Others make their way into the US on their own but are then forced into slavery when they arrive - tricked by offers of a good job. Still, other victims are born in the US. In addition, slave-made goods flow into and through the US every day and make their way into our cupboards and closets. Everyone in the United States is touched by slavery in some way. To find out more about slavery in the US, see the Hidden Slaves report or the Community Member Guide.

What is the role of governments in ending slavery?

Every country has passed laws against slavery, and by doing so they have promised to end it within their borders. Many countries, however, fail to enforce anti-slavery laws. In the US only a tiny fraction of law enforcement resources are directed at slavery and trafficking, in spite of the fact that as many people are newly enslaved each year in the US, according to US government estimates, as are murdered. For more information on what governments can do to fight slavery, click here to Ending Slavery's governments page.

What is the difference between sweatshop or migrant labor and slavery?

The difference between slavery and extremely exploitative labor can be a thin line. Sweatshop workers and migrant laborers are exploited by being paid very little, forced to work long hours and often abused at their workplace. Slaves are subjected to all these conditions, but additionally they have lost their free will — they cannot walk away. Most slaves are paid nothing at all, and the physical and psychological violence used against them is so complete that they cannot escape their slavery.  Free the Slaves believes that all labor abuses and human rights abuses are wrong. Our mission, however, is ending slavery.

Which companies use slave labor and how can I purchase responsibly?

Goods that are produced and distributed through Fair Trade networks are more likely to be slave-free.  In the US, look for the Fair Trade logo on coffee, tea, cocoa and chocolate, fruit, and some clothing items. In Europe, many more Fair Trade products are available. For investments, your best bet is to choose Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) options; click here to learn more. Currently there are no guarantees that any product or investment is 100% slavery free. Slavery is so widespread and so hidden that proving its complete absence remains a challenge in most situations. But the anti-slavery movement is making new breakthroughs every day.

Why doesn’t Free the Slaves advocate boycotts?

Boycotting of slave-made goods can seem like an easy way for consumers to stop buying into slavery and to pressure corporations to alter labor practices, but it is rarely the most effective or responsible action to take. Slaves are at the bottom of the economic ladder, without bargaining power or alternative job options. When the market dries up for the commodities they are producing, the slaves are simply transferred to other work or thrown out without money, shelter, job training, counseling or friends to help them. Free the Slaves sees boycotts as a last resort to be used only after all other methods have failed. Boycotts draw media attention to the issue at hand and can force specific companies to amend their labor practices, but it is doubtful the action would have a meaningful and sustainable impact on the amount of product-based slavery in the world. The best approaches unite all who have the power improve the situation. Free the Slaves seeks lasting partnerships to solve the problem of slavery — recognizing that the key is to take slavery out of the product, not just throw the product out of our homes.


Since slavery has always been part of the human experience; can we really expect to end slavery in our lifetimes?


Yes. We do not face the barriers previous abolitionists had to overcome – the laws are in place, there is no large-scale economic vested interest supporting slavery, and everyone agrees that ending slavery is morally right. What’s more, while 21-30 million is a large number of slaves, it is also the smallest proportion of the world population to ever be in slavery. The estimated cost of freeing all slaves is in the tens of billions of dollars, a large sum, but similar to the cost of the city of Boston’s “Big Dig” road tunnel project. Eradicating slavery is an achievable goal, that will bring a sizable “freedom dividend” to the global economy.