What is modern day slavery?


Many people have heard of modern day slavery in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South America. But what surprises a lot of people is that an estimated 15,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year to become slaves. The International Labor Organization estimates that 250,000 people are being exploited as slaves at any given moment between the U.S. and Europe together. Slavery is both a national and international problem.

Slavery is similar in principle to slavery throughout history. One person is “owned” (though not legally anymore) by another person, and forced to work for no pay. People can be enslaved in the sex trade, domestic servitude, factories, anyplace you can imagine.

Human trafficking and slavery are intrinsically interconnected. No longer are slaves legally transported to the United States in ships and then sold at public auctions, as they were during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They are “trafficked” into slavery.

There is a lot of confusion about what human trafficking is, however. This page seeks to summarize what human trafficking is and what it entails. On this page you will learn several things:

  1. the definition of human trafficking in everyday language,
  2. examples of what human trafficking can look like, taking into account the legal definitions,
  3. activities victims are forced to be involved with, and 
  4. U.S. and international legal definitions of human trafficking.

Please post any questions here so I can ensure this information makes sense to those who are new to the subject!

1. What is human trafficking?

“Human trafficking” is the mode of making someone a slave. Slaves today aren’t sold at auctions the way they were during the Transatlantic slave trade. Some are kidnapped or simply taken. Others are deceived into thinking they will get honest pay for honest work, when a “trafficker” (someone who helps to enslave a person or benefits in some way from their enslavement) means to put them into slavery. Children may be forced by a relative to be prostitutes. Or women may enter prostitution, believing they will make money, but are enslaved by “pimps.”
There are organizations in Connecticut that help people who are enslaved. The victims may be from Connecticut, or from other countries.
Today, people aren’t prosecuted for slavery, they are prosecuted for human trafficking, kidnapping, assault, and other related charges. Each case of human trafficking is different, but learning a few key ideas (in the next section) will help you to understand why situations are human trafficking as you read through this site, and even as you read the newspaper.
2. What does human trafficking look like?

The first thing to keep in mind is that human trafficking is a legal term, defined mainly by intent of the perpetrator.

When people hear the phrase “human trafficking,” what pops into our heads is most likely “drug trafficking” and “arms trafficking” – we most commonly think of moving a commodity across an international border, mostly by crime syndicates. This is incorrect, though. Both definitions refer to the illegal sale and distribution of these commodities and refers to all activity related to the sale of that commodity, from initial planning and acquisition to the final purchase. Understanding this will help us to understand the definition of “human trafficking.”

Just like drug and arms trafficking, human trafficking does not require people to be transported across national borders. It involves the acquisition, transport, and purchasing of a human being. This could occur in another country, or it could occur in a victims’ own town.

Human trafficking involves both perpetrators and victims. First, let’s look at the victim.

To be considered a victim of human trafficking, a person must be forced, coerced, or defrauded (deliberately deceived) into being trafficked. This could include kidnapping, false promises of a job that results in exploitation, or being threatened with violence if the victim doesn’t allow themselves to be exploited.

The two major forms of human trafficking are labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Under international law, if a person over the age of 18 has been forced, coerced, or defrauded (deliberately deceived) to perform commercial sex acts (what could be mistaken as “prostitutes”), those individuals are victims of sex trafficking under U.S. law.

But people under the age of 18 who are prostituted are considered victims of human trafficking, regardless of whether they were obviously forced, coerced, defrauded, or not. These victims could be U.S. citizens, documented immigrants, or undocumented immigrants. (To learn more about this specific type of trafficking, look at Domestic Sex Trafficking and Prostitution in the United States). This idea of force, fraud, or coercion also applies to other areas of exploitation that are human trafficking.

  • Some victims are defrauded into being trafficked, and think they are going to be given a good job. For example, there are stories of women from Eastern European countries who agree to come to the U.S. for a job in an office, and end up being dancers in a strip club, and eventually be prostituted (sex trafficking)
  • Some people are simply taken, kidnapped, and are forced to be a maid or house keeper (labor trafficking). Or, others may owe money and be forced to work off what begins as a small debt, but which never shrinks and only continues to grow.
  • Other times, a victim may be coerced. Sometimes family members threaten to hurt a women if she doesn’t perform sexual acts on his friends, so she is a victim of human trafficking (sex trafficking).

The other aspect of this crime is, of course, the perpetrator. The crime is defined by the intent of the perpetrator, but there are several different activities which contribute to the intent of eventually exploiting the victim, including recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for purposes of exploitation. Notice that people involved with the trafficking of persons without directly “selling” them or benefitting long-term from their exploitation, are still perpetrators of human trafficking. A fictional example of the chain of trafficking might help here.

  • If a woman in Romania finds an ad in a newspaper for jobs in the U.S. as an office assistant, but she will actually be taken and forced to be a prostitute in New York City, the person responsible for placing that ad and for recruiting the victim is guilty of the crime of human trafficking. Even if the recruiter does not make money off of her once in the U.S., they are part of the human trafficking ring (similar to the idea of a drug trafficking ring).
  • Next, as she is travelling, she may not even know that she is being trafficked, but anyone along the way who knowingly harbors or helps to transport her is also a perpetrator of the crime of human trafficking.
  • If she lands at an airport in the U.S. and someone receives her, or transfers her to another person, they are also perpetrators.
  • And finally, the person who purchases, or receives her, who will make money off of her, is also guilty of the crime of human trafficking. That person will continue exploiting her.


Created by Prajwala India

3. What activities are victims forced to be involved with?

There are a number of known activities that victims are forced to be involved with. We know that people are forced:

  • to be domestic servants, are forced to marry (some “mail order brides” or brokered marriages)
  • to give up organs (known as organ harvesting)
  • to be prostitutes (sex trafficking)
  • to work in factories (such as loom weavers making ornate rugs) or harvesting agricultural products (labor trafficking)

These crimes are particularly heinous when they involve children, as in child prostitution (the commercial sexual exploitation of children, or child sex trafficking), or in child soldiering (where children are forced to be part of or support the activities of a military group).

One common form of slavery is debt bondage. A person could be involved in any of the above types of slavery and be in debt bondage. A person incurs an initial debt, sometimes very small, and is forced to work off the debt. The debt is ballooned by the perpetrators, which they say helps to pay for their food, clothing, etc. People can never pay off this debt.

In the U.S., sexual exploitation is common, but forced labor is also common. Migrants, both document and undocumented, are vulnerable to exploitation for their labor as victims of human trafficking. There have been cases in Florida  (and other states) where migrants have had their documents taken away, including their passports, forced to all live in one apartment or home in wretched conditions, and received very little money, if any, in return. These migrants are victims of human trafficking, and may be victims of slavery (if they receive no pay).

4. What are U.S. and international the legal definitions of human trafficking?

Severe forms of trafficking as defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000) (go here to see the Fact Sheet) as:

a. Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age;


b. The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

The international definition, which can be found in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, is similar:

“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

The number of people enslaved throughout the world is estimated to be 12.3 million by the International Labor Organization (Trafficking in persons Report, 2007), though the most common number cited is 27 million. According to U.S. Government-sponsored research completed in 2006,

  • Approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders each year, which does not include millions trafficked within their own countries.
  • Approximately 80 percent of transnational victims are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors. The majority of transnational victims are females trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation.

Please leave any comments about other information you would like to know or questions you have!

(updated 31 January 2011)

  1. Tochukwu says:

    what does human trafficking as a modern-day slavery mean?

    • nomoreslavery says:

      Hey, Tochukwu, not sure if you’ve had a chance to look at the site very much, but thanks for the question. I’ve looked at the page where I thought I would have the answer, http://nomoreslaveryct.com/what-is-modern-day-slavery/, but found it was a bit unclear. So, since you’ve written, I’ve re-vamped that page so hopefully it explains better what this actually means! Please look there again and let me know if you have questions. If you do, I’ll edit the page again, so that it’s clear! Thank you for your questions, it has made this site better!

      Take care,

  2. karl says:

    does your site cover islamic slavery?

    • Sarah Eisele-Dyrli says:

      Hi Karl,

      Thank you for checking out this blog, and thank you for your question. Unfortunately, I am not a historian, so I have not looked at the long history of slavery in the world, including Islamic slavery on this blog. The focus of this site is mainly the most prominent current form of slavery, human trafficking.


      • karl says:

        hello sarah.

        i asked because slavery is still going on in the islamic world as is one of the only places where its still legal to own slaves although i dont think it happens much now days.

        but ive read most of your site and think its great. my daughter is looking for info on slavery for school project and your site is helping her a lot.

        thanks, karl.

      • Sarah Eisele-Dyrli says:

        Hi Karl,

        Actually, slavery is illegal in every country in the world, even Islamic countries. According to Kevin Bales, who many regard as the world’s foremost expert on slavery, “Slavery is a crime in every country; governments have already taken the collective decision to stop it.” (p 128) This does not mean laws are enforced – in the U.S., law enforcement in some places turns a blind eye to slavery and human trafficking. There are an estimated 25 million slaves throughout the world, though, so it certainly does happen a lot these days!

        If your daughter has not checked out the Trafficking in Persons Report, she definitely should. In that report, the State Department goes through the laws or actions (that are on paper) that governments are and have taken to address human trafficking. It can be found here: http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2010/

        You also might want to look at this helpful fact sheet by the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking: http://www.unglobalcompact.org/docs/issues_doc/labour/Forced_labour/HUMAN_TRAFFICKING_-_THE_FACTS_-_final.pdf In it you’ll notice that “only” about 10% of the world’s victims of human trafficking are in what we’d think of as “Islamic” countries. You’ll notice, however, that a great majority are actually in Asia and the Pacific (56%), and that there is a higher percentage of victims in industralized nations than in “Islamic” countries.

        Lastly, I’m glad your daughter is using my site, but I hope she’s found http://www.freetheslaves.net ! They have so much good information – they’re my go-to source when I have questions. They have a lot of great stories, as well, if they would be of any assistance.

        Good luck to your daughter on her project!

  3. karl says:

    thanks for the info and the link. most appreciated.

  4. tipdarath phal says:

    do modern day slavery and human trafficking have the same meaning?

  5. Greetings
    With humility, I have pleasure in bringing to your attention my new novel REINCARNATED COMMODITY – “Phenomenon that refuses to die”; one of a series of three novels by Raymond Ladebo, published on Amazon eBook.com. This is an advocacy styled fictional story contributing to the awareness raising efforts to eradicate Human Trafficking, Modern-day Slavery consciously presented from an African perspective. To quote President Obama, “it is barbaric, it is evil and it has no place in civilized world”.

    “IVIE, Abiku-spirit child, only child of her middle-aged mother, was smart and graduated from secondary school before fifteen. She was sponsored to travel abroad for further education by her paternal Auntie Esomo who’d arranged with her wealthy daughter, Blessing, to assist her little cousin to Italy. The relentless attempts by a ruthless Madam to coerce the innocent teenager into prostitution cartel lead to unexpected consequences…..”
    The scarred girl’s trials and tribulations propelled her from Italy to Britain, Egypt, and the United States of America where she was fortunate to find freedom

    It is available on Amazon eBooks.com- http://www.amazon.com/REINCARNATED-COMMODITY-ebook/dp/B007BIODHK/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1334753379&sr=1-1 OR

    You may also borrow the eBook title to read from Kindles ownners’ library on Amazon.com/.co.uk,etc
    It is hoped you’ll read this fascinating story and recommend to your friends and contacts in particular among educational institutions and the Non Governmental Organizations involved in the anti-slavery organizations, and the Child Rights International Network, UNICEF; UNFPA; UNIFEM, plus other UN Humanitarian Agencies.
    With gratitude and our best regards

    Raymond Ladebo

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