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Slavery exists today - and will still exist tomorrow unless we act to stop it now

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 12 March 2004

There is a common belief that slavery is a thing of the past. People were taught at school about the wonderful work done by organisations such as Anti-Slavery International in London, similar groups such as the Anti Slavery Society in Australia, and activists like William Wilberforce. They assume the campaign to end slavery was won many years ago. The British outlawed slavery in the 1830s and the US in the 1860s.

But the United Nations is using 2004 as a year to commemorate both the struggle against slavery and its abolition and to call on the international community to continue the struggle. Slavery is not a thing of the past.

“Slavery” may have the following characteristics:

  • A slave is forced to work through mental or physical threat.
  • The person is owned or controlled by an “employer”, usually though mental or physical abuse or threatened abuse.
  • The person is dehumanised by being treated as a commodity and bought or sold as a “property”.
  • There are also restrictions placed on the person’s freedom of movement.

Slavery today has five main forms. First, about 20 million people are enslaved as bonded labourers around the world; most of whom are in South Asia. This is the least known form of slavery today and yet is the most widely used method of enslaving people. For example, these people may have borrowed money for as little as the cost of medicine for a sick child, and they are working to pay it off. Unfortunately they cannot read or write and therefore have no idea when they have worked off the debt and so they are just kept working. They receive basic food and shelter as “payment” for their work. But they may never pay off the loan, which can be passed down through several generations. Thanks to organisations like Anti-Slavery International, such work is now a criminal offence under international law. But corrupt local governments and police officers have been slow to enforce the rules or else just ignore them.

Second, there is child labour. Of course, some types of work can make a useful contribution to a child’s development. Work can help children learn about responsibility and develop skills that will benefit them and society. But the International Labour Organisation estimates that 179 million of the world’s children, or 1 in every 8, aged between 5 and 17 are in the worst forms of child labour. This is work that is hazardous to their mental and physical health.

Third, there is early and forced marriage. This affects women and girls who are married without choice and are forced into lives of servitude, which are often accompanied by physical violence.

Fourth, there are about 300,000 child soldiers in over 30 areas of conflict worldwide. Some are as young as 10-years old. Child soldiers may fight on the front line and also work in support roles; girls are often obliged to be “soldiers’ wives”. Even if they are eventually freed from their military roles, the children are psychologically scarred for life by what they have seen and done.

Finally, human trafficking is the fastest growing means by which people are enslaved today. Women, children and men are coerced and deceived by traffickers who promise work with good pay and opportunities in areas far from families and communities. Instead the reality is a harsh contrast, they are forced through the threat or use of violence to work against their will. At least 700,000 people are trafficked each year.


Australia is involved in international efforts to stop slavery and the slave trade. For example, the Australian Government has just signed a memorandum of understanding with the Thai Government on regional co-operation to combat people trafficking. Senator Chris Ellison, the Minister for Justice and Customs, said, “regional co-operation to prevent trafficking is the only way to prevent this insidious trade”. Australia is contributing up to $8.5 million to this project as a part of a much broader package of development assistance aimed at countering people smuggling, trafficking in women and related transnational crime in the Asian Pacific region. The total package will be worth about $24 million over six years.

Therefore, slavery is not just a matter for the history books. It is still a flourishing business that requires international action to combat it. This “international year” is a good opportunity to make sure that steps are taken to really abolish it.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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