The Work of Slaves

Gayan, a 15-year-old boy, was a school dropout when he was recruited by a broker who promised him a good job in the Jharsuguda district (in India). Instead, Gayan, along with other boys, was confined to a factory to work, given little food, severely beaten, branded, burned with cigarettes, and allowed only a few hours’ sleep each night.[1]

The lives of today’s slaves are ruled by four conditions: loss of free will, violence, economic exploitation and no pay other than sustenance. One way of deepening our understanding of slavery is to shine a light on four areas where it remains prevalent:

Forced Labor

Industrial and agricultural forced labor exists around the world and uses either physical force or psychological coercion to extract labor from individuals. At the same time, these people are denied freedom and financial compensation. Immigrants are especially vulnerable to forced labor, especially when they do not speak the language or understand their rights. In these scenarios, they can be easily isolated and manipulated. And in cases where the victims of forced labor are women or girls, sexual exploitation is common.

Work of Slaves

photo by The Green Pages

According to the U.S. State Department, forced labor and child labor exists in the production of 134 goods in 74 countries around the world.[2] Burma and China have a particularly high number of products made by enslaved forced laborers and South Asian countries combine to make up over 55 percent of the forced laborers in the world.[3] In regions with long histories of ethnic discrimination, certain ethnic castes, minorities and religions are frequently enslaved In Latin America, certain groups are vulnerable to enslavement because they are isolated, lack social safety nets, and live with the precarious economic status in relation to the rest of society.[4]

Agricultural goods produced through forced labor frequently include cotton (produced with forced labor in eight countries), cattle (five countries), and sugarcane (five countries). The most prevalent industrial goods include garments (made with forced slave labor in eight countries) and bricks (seven countries).[5]

In the United States, captives forced to labor are primarily immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Thailand or other countries who are here either illegally or temporary guest workers in the United States on H-2 visas but who become trapped into slavery.

Forced child labor deserves separate mention. Since children under the age of eighteen have an underdeveloped understanding of consent, they are often at risk for exploitation by family or non-family members. In the U.S., they are legally incapable of consent. One of the most prevalent industries for child labor is cocoa, where it is estimated that approximately 284,000 children labor in the cocoa fields on the Gold Coast of Africa.

Bonded Labor

Bonded labor is another form of modern slavery where victims either sell themselves into slavery or inherit debt from their ancestors, or they are made to repay the “costs” their traffickers or sellers incurred in trafficking them. In instances of a bonded laborer, victims have little possibility of repaying their debt and gaining their freedom. They never know how much they owe in relationship to their rate of repayment or they continually incur additional costs — exorbitant prices for food or shelter, for example — at the hands of their captors. This makes repayment all but impossible.

According to U.S. Law and to the UN Palermo Protocols, it is coercive to use a debt or other threats of financial harm against a person. This is criminal behavior in the U.S. and international community considers this a form of human trafficking.

Involuntary Domestic Servitude

Involuntary domestic servitude is different from other types of slavery. Enslaved domestic servants work and live in private residences and are generally unseen by the outside world. In the U.S., their employers often control their visas. As their captors, the employers are often the only link to the outside world. Without documentation, language skills, outside relationships or freedom of movement, the domestic servant disappears from view and finds escape impossible.

Sex Trafficking and Prostitution

A person over the age of 18 is a victim of sex trafficking and slavery when she (sex trafficking almost exclusively involves women and girls) is forced or deceived into prostitution. A person is still a victim if she originally consented but then changed her mind about working as a prostitute. Debt bondage often accompanies sexual servitude, as victims struggle to repay “debts” incurred during trafficking. They may even be forced to repay their captors for the amount the captor paid for them.

As with forced labor, a child under the age of 18 is incapable of consent. When she performs an act of commercial sex, without exception and without respect to cultural differences or socioeconomic standards, it is unnecessary to prove that the act was committed under the threat of force or coercion. In the United States and in most of the world, using children in the commercial sex trade is illegal.


[1] 2012 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Missing Persons Report, page 14.

[2] 2012 U.S. Department of Labor List of Goods Produced by Forced Labor or Child Labor. Page 13.

[3] 2012 ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour Executive Summary. Page 2.

[4] 2012 U.S. Department of Labor Trafficking in Missing Persons Report. Page 36.

[5] U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, September 2012, page 362.