What is modern slavery?

Its victims are bound to toil for little or no pay, are forced to engage in exploitative sex work, or are married against their will. Its cost is individual freedom and economic stagnation. Its impact is global, and no country is immune.

What does the term “modern slavery” mean?

Modern slavery is a hidden crime that affects every country in the world. Modern slavery has been found in many industries, including garment manufacturing, mining, and agriculture, and in many contexts, from private homes to settlements for internally displaced people and refugees. Modern slavery impacts on all of us, from the food we consume to the goods we purchase. It is everybody’s responsibility to address and eliminate this crime where it occurs.

Modern slavery covers a set of specific legal concepts including forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery and slavery-like practices, and human trafficking. Although modern slavery is not defined in law, it is used as an umbrella term that focuses attention on commonalities across these legal concepts.

Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.

Cotton pickers work at fields in despite of hot weather as cotton harvest starts in Reyhanli district of Hatay, Turkey.

Photo Credit: Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency. Getty Images.

Modern slavery refers to situations of exploitation in which a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, or abuse of power.

Why it still exists

In some regions, ongoing conflict, political instability, and forced displacement are key drivers of modern slavery. Transformations in the world of work, climate change, and migration increase the vulnerability of many people to exploitation in others.

From poverty to gender discrimination and inequality, addressing risk factors is fundamental to combating and preventing modern slavery. Effective responses to modern slavery must account for these drivers and risks if we are to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 by 2030.

Modern slavery is an umbrella term and includes:

Human trafficking

Defined by the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol as involving recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion with the intent of exploiting that person for sexual exploitation, forced labour, or slavery, among others forms.

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons” even if this does not involve threat, use of force or, coercion.

Debt bondage

Status or condition where one person has pledged their labour or services (or that of someone under their control), in circumstances where the fair value of that labour or service is not reasonably applied to reducing the debt or length of debt, or the length and nature of the service is not limited or defined.

Forced marriage

Any situation where persons, regardless of age, have been forced to marry without their consent.

Slavery and slavery-like practices

Defined in the 1926 Slavery Convention as the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised. In a later treaty, states agreed that there are also certain “slavery-like practices”: debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, sale or exploitation of children (including in armed conflict), and descent-based slavery.

Forced labour

All work or service that is conducted under menace of penalty and for which the person has not offered themselves voluntarily.

Worst forms of child labour

Drawing on the 1999 Convention on Worst Forms of Child Labour, it includes situations where children are: exploited through slavery or slavery-like practices, including forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict; used, procured, or offered for prostitution; used, procured, or offered for illicit activities including production and trafficking of drug; engaged in hazardous work which may harm their health, safety or morals.

“We can do more than cry for the millions of oppressed modern slaves around the world. As free people, it is our duty to use our voices to speak for the voiceless.”

Yeonmi Park

Photo Credit: Tuul & Bruno Morandi. Getty Images.

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Women and Girls

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The Global Slavery Index

Measuring the extent and risk of modern slavery and the effectiveness of our global efforts to end it.


Business & Investor Toolkit

This toolkit is designed to help businesses and investors take action to improve human rights standards in their supply chains and combat forced labour, human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery.

The significant characteristic of all forms of modern slavery is that it involves one person depriving another person of their freedom for profit. Its cost is individual freedom and economic stagnation. Its impact is global, and no country is immune.

Who we are

Walk Free is an international human rights group focused on the eradication of modern slavery, in all its forms, in our lifetime.

How we work

We independently and unashamedly agitate for change and pioneer research that reinforces the need for change in the world.

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