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What is Slavery?

"Slavery," "forced labour," "bonded labour," "child labour," and "human trafficking" are commonly used terms. Though there are differences, by and large, these are conditions where a person's freedom is restricted and forced to render labour or services, regardless of compensation. Simply, this is modern day slavery. With the low cost of transportation, the trading of slaves is a thriving global business where individuals are acquired through force, fraud, or other means in order to transport them to a location where they are exploited as slaves, or sold to those who exploit them as slaves. This happens both within national borders and across international borders, in both developed and developing countries. There are more slaves today than at any point in history, and the highest number of slaves is found in Asia; click this map to learn more.


United Nation Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines human trafficking as follows:

Against this definition, modern day slavery is a form of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a crime against humanity. Click here for more information on human trafficking.

According to UNODC - Global Report on Trafficking in Persons (2009), an estimated 25 million people are trafficked globally annually. 79% of all victims are sexually exploited. 46% know their recruiter. 22% of them are minors (below the age of 18).

Every day, all over the world, millions of men, women and children are:

Forced to work for long hours, by physical or mental threats, for little or no pay;
Owned or controlled by another person who usually abuses or threatens to abuse or harm them and/or their families
Bought and sold like a piece of commodity
Physically constrained, or experience serious restrictions to their freedom of movement
Starved and/or made to live in extremely poor conditions

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Victims of human trafficking are primarily recruited into the sex and entertainment industry, agriculture, factory work, garment manufacturing, fishery, construction and domestic services. Here are some examples of human trafficking/modern day slavery that are directly linked to the products and services that you and I may consume.

Sex Trafficking
Sex trafficking is defined as using coercion or force to transport an unwilling person into prostitution or other sexual exploitation. There are an estimated 250,000 women and children who are trafficked for sex in Asia. Sex trafficking is arguable the cruellest form of Human Trafficking, where victims, some as young as 3, suffer irreparable psychological trauma and physical damage from enduring regular rape. Some victims die at the hands of traffickers or contract deadly diseases like AIDS.

Domestic Servitude
Every year an estimated two million Asian women migrate to other countries to seek work, primarily as a family survival strategy. They courageously leave all that is familiar to them to face unknown risks. Many end up as domestic workers who may be at particular risk of abuse and exploitation behind the closed doors of private homes.

Construction Workers

Construction workers are recruited by agencies and supplied to work in developed countries. Workers, debt laden, have no alternative but to accept terms and conditions that are different from originally agreed at source countries. They end up having to work long hours, receive little pay and endure poor living conditions. Workers could be further exploited by having to pay substantial amount of money if they wish to renew contracts.

Farming and Agriculture

Anti-Slavery International's latest research shows the continuation of child trafficking, a form of modern slavery, to cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, which produces almost 40% of the world's cocoa. Instead of going to school young boys are forced to spend long days hacking open cocoa pods with machetes, handling dangerous pesticides and carrying heavy loads - work that is deemed extremely hazardous, can lead to injury and ill-health, and that no young child should have to do.

Uzbekistan's booming cotton industry, which is the 3rd biggest exporter in the world, is reliant on the use of hundreds of thousands of children in slavery during the three-month harvest each year. Children in Uzbekistan do not have a choice regarding cotton picking. They are given daily quotas and if they fail to meet them they can be punished by beatings, detention or told that their grades will suffer. Children can also be left exhausted and suffering from ill-health and malnutrition after weeks of arduous labor.

Men are recruited onto fishing boats to work in international waters for duration of several years. Migrant labour from poor countries often fall prey to illegal brokers. They are recruited into the fishing industry which is substandard, dirty and dangerous. In many cases, workers are virtually used as slave labour and not paid. Those who fall sick get a few anti-fever tablets. Some of those deemed too ill to work are simply thrown overboard, survivors claim. The International Labour Organisation 2005 report concluded that 10 per cent of young men who worked on fishing boats in South-east Asia did not return from their trips.

Factory Work
Evidence from the 2008 Beijing Olympics documented labour rights violations, including forced labour, in the production of Olympic merchandise and sportswear. In one factory producing branded stationery, children as young as 12 years old were being forced to work 15 hours a day. Other companies employ workers to work long hours with little or no pay.

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Many people cannot associate themselves with modern-day slavery - a term that sounds so remote from our lives in the 21st century.

Modern-day slavery is intertwined with our daily lives. Economic globalization has given rise to a vast amount of economically competitive goods, which can only be produced sustainably with the help of cheap labour.

And as a result of their lack of awareness, many, impoverished men, women and children fall prey to the evil schemes that exploit their innocence, desperation and attempts to help themselves by obtaining employment.

Individuals who are trafficked are recruited to work both near and far away from home, only to find themselves enslaved in a wide variety of industries such as agriculture, fishing, sex and entertainment, construction, mining and domestic servitude..

Common practices associated with trafficking include "debt bondage", "forced prostitution", and "child labour" where men, women and children are forced to work long hours for little or no pay and often face physical and emotional abuse. These are the modern-day slaves whose demands are based solely on human desires for low cost products, enjoyment and paid sexual services.

No country is spared from buying and consuming products tainted with slavery. Find out what types of food, clothing, decorations and electronics that you consume, which involve slavery in their supply chains. Find out how your consumption is linked with slavery here.

There are many migrant domestic workers in Singapore and throughout Asia. Many employers are unreasonably demanding of their domestic workers, exert excessive control over their movements and contact with others. They become abusive, instilling a spirit of fear and intimidation within their employees.

Many men are brought into countries like Singapore to work on construction sites and provide manual labour in order to help build infrastructure and housing. Many are deceived and forced to work in poor conditions. This is just one example of modern-day slavery.

The most rampant and lucrative slave trade is sexual exploitation, which often involves young boys and girls. Individuals who are sexually exploited form the largest percentage of modern day slaves.

Where there is demand for cheap labour, paid sexual services and money to be made, there will always be a supply of people. Please refer to the slavery map.

Now that you know modern-day slavery is closer to home than you ever imagined, do you recognise any signs near you?

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