What is Slavery?

When Ashley (United States) was 12-years-old she got into a fight with her mother and ran away from home. She ended up staying with her friend’s older brother at his house and intended to go home the next day, but when she tried to leave he told her that he was a pimp and that she was now his property. He locked her in a room, beat her daily, and advertised her for sex on websites. Once, she looked out a window and saw her mother on the street, crying and posting flyers with Ashley’s photo. When Ashley tried to shout her mother’s name from the window, her pimp grabbed her by the hair and yanked her back, threatening, “If you shout, I’ll kill you.”[1]

What is Slavery

photo by Hermes Marana

Imagine waking up in the morning to begin your day. But instead of working to support your family, the fruits of your labor create a better life for someone else – the slaveholder who possesses you. You are alive, but your life is not your own. You labor, but receive no benefit. You must say “yes” when you mean “no.” And if you refuse to cooperate, the threat of violence looms over you. Imagine if this was your life.

Violent control is slavery’s most significant characteristic. With violence established, slavery occurs in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, domestic work, among sex workers, and in the form of debt bondage.

Professor Kevin Bales, a leading scholar on the subject and the founder of Free the Slaves, asks two key questions about people in situations of extreme exploitation:

  • Can they walk away?
  • Are they under violent control?[2]

Four features that define the lives of slaves:

  1. Slaves cannot express their free will. They do not have freedom of movement. They are forced to work. A slave cannot say “no.”
  2. Slaves are controlled through violence or the threat of violence. Slaves are also controlled through a combination of fraud, manipulation, accumulated debt, the retention of identity papers, or the threat of being turned over to immigration authorities.
  3. Slaves suffer extreme economic exploitation at the hands of slaveholders.
  4. Slaves receive no payment for their work other than basic sustenance (meager food and shelter).[3]

Human trafficking is a subcategory of modern slavery, defined by The Trafficking in Victims Protection Act (TVPA) as:

  • Recruiting, harboring, transporting, supplying or obtaining a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude or slavery;
  • Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform sex acts is under 18 years of age.[4]

Traffickers frequently prey on chronically poor, unemployed or underemployed people who may lack access to social safety nets. Lured with false promises of good jobs and better lives, the trafficked are then violently forced to work in brutal conditions.[5]

Because slavery is globally illegal, the challenge of freeing the millions enslaved today is a matter of enforcing existing laws and examining the global economic conditions leading to enslavement and our relationship to these conditions.

“Slavery” or “Forced Labor?” A word about terminology:

“Slavery” correctly describes the above conditions, accurately naming the loss of free will, violence and manipulation, economic exploitation and lack of compensation. For some, this word choice is perilous. “Slavery” is evocative and runs the risk of sensationalizing a critical issue and further exploiting victims. We respect other organizations’ use of alternative terminology, such as the International Labour Organization’s preference for the term “forced labor.” We also respect the objections of some representatives of African states as well as North American advocates who contend that the term “slavery” should be reserved for the transatlantic slave trade.[6] Nonetheless, slavery exists in our world. It is an urgent crisis requiring our attention and inspired action.


[1] 2012 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Missing Persons Report, page 27.

[2] Kevin Bales/Free the Slaves, Anti-Slavery International, International Labour Organization.

[3] Kevin Bales/Free the Slaves, Anti-Slavery International, International Labour Organization.

[4] 2012 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Missing Persons Report.

[5] Ibid.

[6] van den Anker, Christien, ed. Political Economy of New Slavery, Palgrave Macmillan, New York. pages 8-9.