What is modern slavery?

It is estimated that there are approximately 40.3 million people in slavery today, 71% of whom are women and girls and 10 million are children. The numbers, despite being shocking, are still little known and, in many cases, totally ignored.

Unfortunately, the estimations now known about modern slavery and forced labor are more than 3 years old. Without more recent data, it is estimated that the number of people in slavery must have continued increasing, specially during the pandemic and the confinements enacted around the world. In 2018 the organisation The Walk Free Foundation released a report that estimated an 11% increase in victims since conducting a similar report in 2015. The same report stated that of the 40.3 million people in this situation, around 24.9 million are employed in forced labor, 15.4 million are in forced marriage and 4.8 million are involved in sexual exploitation.

Also, it is reported that the countries with the highest prevalence of these types of modern slavery are North Korea, Eritrea, Burundi, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Sudan, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Iran. And those with the largest number of slaves in absolute numbers (60% of the total) are: India (7.9 million), China (3.8 million), Pakistan (3.2 million), North Korea (2.6 million), Nigeria (1.38 million), Iran (1.28 million) and Indonesia (1.2 million).

However, it should not be assumed that this is a specific phenomenon of developing countries. Although it is most prevalent in these countries, both in proportion and numbers, this serious humanitarian crisis is also present in European countries, such as Portugal and Spain, as well as in the United States. In the US, for example, there were 403,000 enslaved people reported in 2018, while the European Union estimated 1.8 million people living in bondage. It is worth remembering how difficult and inaccurate this type of measurement is due to it being a hidden and illegal phenomenon without any kind of registration and of difficult access.

Slavery: a phenomenon many considered to be eradicated

Defining the phenomenon, what is modern slavery?

According to the Walk Free Foundation, modern slavery is defined as: “a situation of exploitation to which a person cannot refuse due to threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception”. While the Anti-Slavery organization defines it as “the severe exploitation of others for personal or commercial gain”.

In any case, modern slavery refers to a form of exploitation suffered by a person at the cost of threats or coercive forms that force the exploited person to perform work against his or her will.

Despite being a phenomenon that claims more than 40 million victims worldwide, it remains in the shadows of public consciousness. Modern slavery is not far removed from urban reality. In fact, forced labor and slavery are present in many industries and supply chains. An ILO study in 2014 estimated that modern slavery generated annual profits of more than 150 billion dollars.

However, it is not only in private companies or private supply chains that this phenomenon is occurring. The Walk Free Foundation compiled and documented in its 2018 report of very renowned cases of state-based modern slavery. One of the countries most accused of using slaves under state coercion was North Korea.

Some history:

In general, most people know that slavery was outlawed by almost every country in the world many years ago. Consequently, they consider it to be an issue that has little or nothing to do with the modern world. And even when they acknowledge its existence, they still tend to relate it to the known historical context.

However, modern slavery is a modern-day humanitarian crisis. It is omnipresent throughout the world. Although there are the lowest proportional number of victims with the overall global population, more people are enslaved today than at any other time in history.

Modalities (types) of modern slavery:

Modern slavery can take many forms and has different purposes. These are some of the most common modalities/types of modern slavery:

● Human trafficking. The use of coercion, threats and violence to force a human being to be transported or recruited from one place to be exploited in another for personal or economic gain.

● Forced labor. Refers to any type of labor or service in which people are forced to work against their will and/or acting under threat. The practice is typically found in industries with little regulation and large workforces.

● Debt bondage. The most widespread form of slavery in the world. Occurs when an individual is forced to work to repay a debt. Often escalating expenses make repayment impossible and slavery permanent. Migrant workers who incur debts to cover travel or housing are particularly vulnerable to this type of slavery. Debts can also be generational.

● Slavery based on descent. Traditional and ancient form of slavery in which people are treated as property because of their ancestry. Slavery is usually treated as a product of the maternal line.

● Forced and early marriage. When someone is forced to marry against his or her will and under coercion, violence, or threat so that he or she cannot break off the marriage. Although it depends on some approaches, most child marriages can be considered slavery.

Modern Slavery in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal):


In Spain, modern slavery is a fact that affects about 105,000 people, according to the ‘Global Slavery Index’ (2.27% of the total population). According to this report, Spain is the seventh country in a list of those with the most effective measures against modern slavery and human trafficking. However, the rate of vulnerability or danger of falling into slavery is 12.8%, according to the report, that highlights that Spain does not act on actions related to the supply chains surrounding these crimes.

The sectors most vulnerable to modern slavery and labor exploitation in Spain are: the domestic sector, construction, the textile industry, the hotel industry and jobs surrounding fields or related to harvesting.

In Spain, among people suffering sexual exploitation, 90% are women and girls, while in labor exploitation 80% are men and 20% are women.


In a report by the European Commission, it was noted that between 2015-2016 Portugal had a higher proportion of labor trafficking victims per million inhabitants than any other European state, apart from Malta.

The Commission estimated that about 65% of trafficking victims were intended for labor exploitation. Followed, by victims of sex trafficking, who account for 28% of known victims.

The SEF (Portuguese Border and Immigration Service) reported 86 victims of human trafficking in Portugal in 2020, an increase of about 45% compared to 2018. Being most cases related to labor exploitation.

By: Juan Diego Valenzuela

July 1, 2021