The Americas region is home to 13 per cent of the world’s population, with varying levels of wealth, mobility, and security across and within countries in the region. Modern slavery in the region is driven by inequality,1 increasing poverty,2 discrimination against migrants and minority groups, political instability, and conflict. The situation has been exacerbated by economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and responses to it,3 as well as the impacts of climate-related displacement.
An estimated 3.5 per thousand people in the region are in forced labour and 1.5 per thousand in forced marriage. Mass migration fuels forced labour, particularly in the world’s largest migration corridor from Mexico to the United States (US). Migrants flee countries such as Venezuela and others and congregate on the border between the US and Mexico.4 Forced marriage is linked to increased poverty and lower educational attainment,5 and is driven by longstanding patriarchal norms and fundamentalist religious beliefs within the region; for example, in North America forced marriage is reported in conservative religious sects.6
The US has taken the most action to tackle modern slavery in the Americas, followed by Canada, Argentina, and Uruguay. Cuba, Suriname, and Venezuela have taken the least action. Of the five G20 countries in the region (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and the US), Brazil, Canada and the US have taken action to tackle modern slavery in supply chains. Much more needs to be done to strengthen legislation to hold businesses to account and to tackle gender inequality that drives modern slavery of women and girls.
What is the extent and nature of modern slavery in the region?
An estimated 5.1 million men, women, and children were living in modern slavery on any given day in 2021. The Americas had the lowest prevalence of modern slavery among the five regions, with 5 in every thousand people living in modern slavery. The Americas had the third highest prevalence of forced labour (3.5 per thousand) and the lowest prevalence of forced marriage (1.5 per thousand) compared to other regions.7
Within the region, Venezuela, Haiti, and El Salvador had the highest prevalence of modern slavery. In Haiti8 and Venezuela9 modern slavery is intertwined with migration, political instability, and drug trafficking routes from South America to Central and North America,10 while in El Salvador it is associated with gang violence and gender-based violence.11
The largest estimated numbers of people in modern slavery include some of the region’s most populous countries — Brazil, the US, and Mexico. Three of every five people in modern slavery in the Americas are exploited in one of these countries. The countries with the lowest prevalence in the region are Canada, Uruguay, and Chile.
Children in the Americas are at particularly high risk of all forms of modern slavery. They have been recruited as soldiers in protracted civil conflicts in Colombia and Venezuela, resulting in long-lasting trauma.12 Child recruitment by armed groups, gangs, and organised crime has increased in the region, impacting children in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and El Salvador.13 Moreover, children are reportedly involved in hazardous labour in industries such as mining in gold and tin,14 drug trafficking,15 and agriculture, most notably in cotton, cattle, fishing, and tobacco.16 Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurs in the region. In the Caribbean, sex tourism,17 particularly involving children18 remains an issue, with sex tourists, primarily from the US, seeking to exploit children in countries such as Belize.19 UN estimates reveal that child marriage is prevalent in the region with 22 per cent of women between ages 20 and 24 having been married before the age of 18 years.20 In the US, recent research estimated that 300,000 children were married between 2000 and 2018.21
Seasonal, temporary, and undocumented workers in the agricultural sector are vulnerable to forced labour, including workers in higher-income countries such as the US and Canada.22 This is particularly true in informal or rural labour contexts where there are limited regulations and few labour inspections.23 Forced labour in US supply chains remains an issue in the Americas,24 with agricultural workers in countries that supply products to the US market vulnerable to exploitation. Moreover, there are reports of compulsory prison labour in public and private prisons in Brazil25 and the US.26
“The farm owner hired me… [and] he used to say to me to wait when the work was done then he would pay me, but at the end he did not pay.” 42-year-old Brazilian male survivor of forced labour
Although these estimates are the most reliable to date, they are conservative given the gaps and limitations of data collection in the Americas. These figures do not capture all forms of modern slavery, such as recruitment of child soldiers, trafficking for the purposes of organ removal, and all child marriages.
Table 1: Estimated prevalence and number of people in modern slavery, by country
|Regional rank||Country||Est. prevalence of modern slavery (per 1,000 population)||Est. number of people in modern slavery||Population|
|17||Trinidad and Tobago||4.7||7,000||1,399,000|
What drives vulnerability to modern slavery in the region?
Figure 1: Level of vulnerability to modern slavery, by dimension
Vulnerability to modern slavery in the Americas region is driven largely by inequality, political instability, and discrimination against migrants and minority groups (Figure 1). Conflict disproportionately impacted two countries in the region, Mexico and Colombia, while vulnerability was further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate-related disasters across the region. At the country level, vulnerability to modern slavery is highest in Haiti and lowest in Canada (Table 2).
Inequality represents the greatest driver of vulnerability in the Americas. Certain populations, including women, children, migrants, and Indigenous people, face heightened vulnerability as a result of systemic discrimination. In Haiti, children known as restavecs (stay withs), who are given away by their parents to a host household, are vulnerable to exploitation in domestic servitude, with girls particularly at risk.27 Restavec children are trafficked and are at increased vulnerability to sexual abuse.28 Across the region, Indigenous populations are particularly vulnerable to modern slavery. For example, although Indigenous women make up only 4 per cent of the population of Canada, they comprise at least 50 per cent of identified survivors of human trafficking.29 Migrant workers are also at greater risk, with the absence of protections in several countries, such as the right to form a union or laws prohibiting recruitment fees.30
Governance issues, such as political instability, lack of political rights, and poor regulatory quality, also drive vulnerability to modern slavery by causing displacement and hampering the national response. Violent protests in Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, the assassination of the President of Haiti in 2021 and increasing control of the country by street gangs and growing political polarisation in Brazil and the US31 drive vulnerability across the region. High rates of violent crime in several countries including Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Jamaica,32 and weak confidence in judicial systems in Mexico, Haiti, and Venezuela, diminish accessibility to legal rights, representation, and prosecution.33 In Venezuela, political instability and corruption among the prosecution and judiciary undermines law enforcement efforts,34 while armed groups continue to commit acts of violence against civilians, thereby driving mass migration.35
Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by governance issues across the region, as patriarchal attitudes that suppress women’s agency persist at both the household and institutional levels.36 Such attitudes contribute to the absence of laws protecting women and girls — for example, laws that set the minimum age of marriage at 18 without exception37 — and a lack of enforcement of existing legal frameworks covering violence against women.38
Violence, poverty, political dysfunction, and environmental degradation across the region have led to a substantial increase in refugees, asylum-seekers, and other vulnerable and displaced populations.39 The continual movement of migrants and refugees is a pressing issue in the Americas, which hosted 26 per cent of the world’s international migrants in 2020.40 Venezuela’s political instability and socio-economic breakdown has pushed more than 6 million citizens to flee the country as of November 2021.41 The Mexico-US border is the world’s most popular migration corridor;42 over the five years from 2016 to 2021, some 4 million migrants were apprehended along the Mexico-US border, nearly half of whom came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The remaining came predominately from Mexico and other nations.43 In Mexico, migrants are held in crowded detention centres, while those who had sought assistance in shelters reported experiencing robbery, extortion, bodily harm, kidnapping, and abuse of authority while migrating, all factors which make these individuals vulnerable to modern slavery.44 As many countries in the Americas have restrictive immigration policies, which force migrants to take increasingly precarious routes, thereby further exacerbating their vulnerability to trafficking and other forms of modern slavery.45
Table 2: Level of vulnerability to modern slavery, by country
|Trinidad and Tobago||38|
What are governments in the region doing to address modern slavery?
Walk Free has assessed government responses to modern slavery in 32 countries in the Americas. Governments across the region scored an average of 48 per cent, second only to Europe and Central Asia. National responses in the Americas are mixed. Despite some strong responses in the region, there is evidence of weak criminal justice systems and inadequate protection for survivors, which are compounded by government crises, corruption, and large migration flows.
Wealth disparity impacts government responses to modern slavery within the region. Wealthier countries typically demonstrated stronger responses to modern slavery, with the US (67 per cent) and Canada (60 per cent) — the region’s wealthiest countries — ranking first and second respectively. The US also performed well at the global level, ranking within the top five. At the same time, some countries with comparatively lower wealth also demonstrated strong responses to modern slavery. Argentina’s response (58 per cent) ranked third in the region, only just below Canada, despite having less than half the GDP per capita PPP (current international $) (US$20,769 compared to US$46,572).46 Some of the countries that demonstrated the least action to respond to modern slavery had the lowest GDP per capita among countries assessed and had experienced political and economic disruption; for example, Venezuela (27 per cent) and Cuba (31 per cent).
The US, Canada, Argentina, and Uruguay demonstrated the strongest responses to modern slavery. Compared to others in the Americas, these countries are generally taking concrete actions to improve certain aspects of survivor support, strengthen criminal justice systems, and address risk factors. The Canadian government routinely releases annual reports describing actions to combat modern slavery and has an independent oversight mechanism in place for monitoring the functioning and effectiveness of its National Action Plan.47 In 2019, Canada also ratified the ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 with its ratification entering into force on 17 June 2020.48 Venezuela demonstrated the weakest responses to modern slavery. Venezuela continues to be affected by protracted economic and political instability, which hampered the government’s ability to respond.49
"My employer took away my passport, locked me in the house and disconnected the phone whenever she left home. I was made to sleep on the basement floor. I was so isolated from the outside world that I had no idea there was help available." Fainess Lipinga, United States50
Saint Lucia, Canada, and Uruguay have all taken further action to combat modern slavery since the previous assessment of government responses in 2018. In Saint Lucia, the government introduced a hotline that facilitates reporting to specialised human trafficking task forces, federal authorities, local law enforcement, and service providers.51 This was accompanied by a widespread awareness campaign to promote the hotline.52 Since the last report, Peru, Antigua and Barbuda, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, and Suriname have also ratified the ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930,53 while the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) entered into force in Mexico, Peru, and Antigua and Barbuda.54
The strength of legislative frameworks to combat modern slavery in the Americas is varied. Across the region, 21 countries criminalise human trafficking, 12 countries criminalise forced labour, and only seven countries criminalise forced marriage (Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Saint Lucia, Bahamas, Canada, and Belize). The US provided up to US$10 million in funding for programs to prevent child marriage around the world from 2017 to 2020,55 yet most of its states still allow children under the age of 18 to marry and eight have not set a minimum age.56 In most countries assessed, governments provided training for the judiciary and prosecution, however only 11 countries provided this training regularly. When considering protections for children, 15 countries have criminalised child commercial sexual exploitation; however, only Colombia, Nicaragua, and Panama have criminalised the use of children in armed conflict. Only Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago are yet to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
While the majority of countries in the region had specialised law enforcement units to investigate modern slavery, 16 of them did not have the resources to operate effectively. In El Salvador, both the anti-trafficking police and prosecution units did not have enough resources to investigate and prosecute cases and were further impeded by the lack of an electronic case management system.57 Additionally, there is evidence that survivors of modern slavery have been treated as criminals for conduct that occurred while under the control of criminals in the US, Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, and Honduras. In the US, survivors are criminalised and face challenges finding employment and housing because of charges laid against them while they were under the control of criminals.58
All countries in the Americas are involved in a regional response to modern slavery. National coordination bodies exist in all but two countries (Cuba and Venezuela); however, only the US, Guyana, and Canada include survivors of modern slavery in this coordination. Almost all countries in the Americas have a National Action Plan to combat modern slavery; only Chile does not. Chile’s draft National Action Plan has not been formally approved or made public, while after years of awaiting approval, Paraguay finally implemented a National Action Plan covering the period from 2020 to 2024.59
While nearly all countries in the Americas have criminalised corruption, allegations of official complicity in modern slavery cases were reportedly not investigated in 17 countries. In Mexico, where an anonymous hotline to report corruption of officials received no tips despite reports of government officials facilitating modern slavery, some officials have been investigated but there have been no convictions.60 Labour inspections specifically targeting modern slavery occur in 24 countries, although none have sufficient labour inspectors to cover the entire population or to allow labour inspectors to enter premises unannounced. Only in Honduras are labour inspectors able to enforce fines. In 12 countries, not all children are able to access birth registration systems, which creates significant vulnerability due to related barriers to accessing education and employment.
There is evidence of awareness campaigns targeting known modern slavery risks in all but two countries in the region. In 2021, Canada launched a five-year awareness campaign based on a survey of public attitudes and awareness on human trafficking.61 There is also evidence that governments have facilitated research on modern slavery in 19 countries, including, for example, a 2021 study on the state of human trafficking in Honduras62 and a 2020 study to reduce vulnerability to human trafficking and crime in Saint Lucia.63 That being said, state-imposed forced labour, such as abuse of compulsory prison labour, undermines any government efforts to tackle modern slavery in Brazil64 and the US.65
Although the Americas has the second strongest response in terms of addressing forced labour in global supply chains in comparison to other regions, the level of action remains low. Recently, Canada and Mexico joined the US in enacting legislation that prohibits companies from importing goods produced through forced labour and, more recently, passed its own “Modern Slavery Act” which imposes a mandatory reporting obligation on certain government institutions and private sector entities.66 The US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement came into effect in July 2020 and prohibited the importation of goods produced with forced labour into each country’s territory.67 In the same month, Canada amended its Customs Tariff to incorporate the restriction on goods produced with forced labour.68 The US also passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in 2021, which entered into effect in June 2022, to prevent goods made with forced labour of Uyghurs from entering the US market.69
Table 3: Government response score, by country and milestone
|Country||Survivors identified and supported (%)||Criminal justice mechanisms (%)||National and regional level coordination (%)||Risk factors are addressed (%)||Government and business supply chains (%)||Total (%)|
|Trinidad and Tobago||50||65||63||36||0||49|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||59||50||63||29||0||45|
|Antigua and Barbuda||36||54||63||50||0||44|
Recommendations for governments
Introduce legislation requiring governments and businesses to take steps to identify and address modern slavery in their supply chains, including mandatory human rights due diligence.
Enact or strengthen existing legislation to ensure that all forms of exploitation are criminalised and penalties for crimes associated with forced labour, forced marriage, and human trafficking are appropriate for the severity of the crime.
Improve support and identification efforts for all victims throughout the Americas by providing services to all survivors of modern slavery, including men, children, and migrants.
Establish bilateral agreements protecting labour migrants between countries of origin and destination.
Adopt and distribute national guidelines for identifying and screening victims and provide systematic and regular training for police and other first responders, as well as border guards, immigration officials, labour inspectors, teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, and tourism sector workers, with a particular emphasis on countries receiving large influxes of migrants fleeing crisis in the region.