Isn’t Slavery a Thing of the Past?

Insights in the ILO’s Global Estimates on Modern Slavery

In the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 2023 is a Slavery Memorial Year, celebrating that 150 years ago, slavery was actually abolished in the Kingdom. On 2 December, it will be 74 years since slavery has been internationally abolished by the General Assembly of the United Nations. This might seem like slavery is something from the past, but the UN warns that “modern slavery is on the rise”. According to the most recent estimates of the ILO, around 50 million people worldwide are trapped in modern slavery. Does this mean that slavery still exists?

According to the UN, ‘modern slavery’ refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave, because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power. However, a definition for modern slavery does not exist in international law and it is mostly used as an umbrella term for practices like forced labour, child labour, debt bondage, forced marriage and human trafficking. The term modern slavery, also referred to as contemporary slavery or neo-slavery, also seems to be used to shed light on working and living conditions contrary to human dignity, especially since ‘slavery’ emphasizes the severity of the practices. The ILO states that modern slavery consists of forced labour and forced marriage, which definition is also the basis of its latest global estimates of modern slavery. 

To combat modern slavery, several countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and some European countries, have enacted national modern slavery legislation. Though the contents of these acts differ per country, this legislation generally criminalizes forms of modern slavery. Additionally, modern slavery legislation sometimes obliges companies of a certain size to publish a yearly Modern Slavery Statement. A Modern Slavery Statement should contain an explanation of the steps the company has taken to combat and reduce the risk of modern slavery occurring within their own company and within their supply chain. The idea behind this is to create greater transparency about where modern slavery occurs and what is being done to prevent it. While collecting (supplier) codes of conduct to build the Database of Business Ethics, we have noticed that companies from aforementioned countries post a Modern Slavery Statement on their website, alongside a (supplier) code of conduct, thus emphasizing compliance with the obligations from that legislation.

In one of our blogs, we have already referred to the Uyghur case of modern slavery with a focus on forced labour. Although this is a recent example of modern slavery, it happens in more forms and in more places. The main forms of modern slavery are explained by the UN here. The report of the ILO has shown that modern slavery occurs in almost every country in the world, and it cuts across ethnic, cultural and religious lines. Additionally, more than half of all forced labour and a quarter of all forced marriages occur in upper-middle and high-income countries. The ILO report also concluded that in the five years that had passed since the previous report, the number of people trapped in modern slavery had increased by 10 million.

The UN states that the international abolition of slavery also applies to modern slavery, stressing the importance of being aware that slavery in its modern form still exists, and emphasizing the necessity of doing something about it.


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