Modern Abolition

Slavery Today

Mauritania was the last country to legally abolish slavery in 1981. Since then, slavery has been technically illegal in every country, but it is difficult to define today because of its invisible nature and ever-changing forms. We use a loose definition of enslavement, believing that it is any forced work under fear of physical injury or intimidation, with little or no pay, and with no opportunity for a victim to escape.

The 20.9 million men, women and children, who are enslaved throughout the world, work as field hands harvesting crops, as seamstresses in sweatshops, as kidnapped fishermen, as child soldiers, as common laborers so deeply in debt that their obligation can never be repaid, and as sex slaves in the commercial sex industry.

Human trafficking, a more widely used term, most often refers to the business of trading people as commodities – similar to the transatlantic and internal slave trade in the United States before 1865. Trafficking, or the trade of people, does not require victims to be transported across a national border. In fact, trading often occurs within countries and local communities. An illegal and largely invisible market in trafficked humans exists around the world, fueled by poverty, greed and corruption, ignorance, porous national borders, ineffective law enforcement and a demand for paid sex.

“Modern slavery,” “trafficking in persons,” and “human trafficking” are often used synonymously as umbrella terms and often refer to the same idea: Men, women, and children are enslaved to a master.

The Economics of Slavery

At its heart, slavery is an inhuman perversion of a simple economic principle: The best way to maximize profits is by minimizing the cost of labor.

Of the 20.9 million slaves in the world today, 90% are enslaved by the private economy – individuals and businesses using enslaved labor to generate a profit. Carpet factories, textile mills, fishing boats, brick kilns and charcoal camps – amongst many other industries – often use slaves to reduce labor costs.

In today’s global economy, the demand for cheap goods and services has created a labor system of slaves. Consumers unknowingly support this practice by preferring less-expensive goods, made so through enslaved labor. In other parts of the world, labor traffickers round up impoverished, desperate laborers, helping them enter other countries, like the United States, where they are entrapped in a bonded labor arrangement.

In addition to an inexpensive labor force, the sale of human beings is a lucrative industry with a vast supply of men, women and children, who are easily replenished and readily available. According to the United Nations and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the human trafficking market is worth more than $32 billion, just behind drug trafficking and tied with the illegal arms industry.

Slave traders realize trafficking is a profitable criminal enterprise, often with very little risk. Traffickers, often with police complicity, prey on desperate men, women and children to build an underground supply of human beings for sale.

Ohio Human Trafficking

Slavery occurs in each of the fifty states, including Kentucky and Ohio. For more information on human trafficking in Ohio, check out the 2012 Report on Domestic Sex Trafficking in Ohio and the 2009 Greater Cincinnati Human Trafficking Report.


*Note: The Freedom Center uses data collected by the International Labor Organization unless otherwise noted.