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Have you ever wondered what the term ‘slavery’ means in 2019? ’Slavery’ is not an exaggeration, even in today’s context. In 2017, the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Walk Free Foundation, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that more than 40 million people were trapped in modern slavery in various industries.1 Instead of focusing on seafood slavery; this post aims to address the wider context of modern slavery by discussing three features of modern slavery that are common across sectors and industries.

One: Like historical slavery, people trapped in slavery today cannot walk away. They may endure mental abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse or all three. Many aren’t compensated, or they’re paid very little.

The oldest international human rights organization2, Anti-slavery International, defines someone as a slave if they are:3

  • forced to work

  • through coercion, or mental or physical threat;

  • owned or controlled by an ’employer’, through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse;

  • dehumanized, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as ‘property’;

  • physically constrained or have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.

Forced labor, debt bondage, forced marriage, sex trafficking, and human trafficking are all forms of modern slavery identified by the ILO.4 This umbrella term essentially refers to exploitation of individuals who are unable to leave their jobs because of threats, violence, coercion, or deception. Slavery isn’t just an ethical issue; it is also a legal issue as slavery, and practices similar to slavery, is prohibited and very often defined as a criminal offense in national legislation of countries around the world. Moreover, slavery may be tied with other offenses, such as money laundering.

This atrocity is both pervasive and insidious: modern slavery can be found in developing and developed countries. For example, on any given day in 2016, there were 403,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States.5 Modern slavery is driven by a desire for profits more so than out of sheer cruelty6,7, which makes slavery an economic crime.

Unlike the traditional form of slavery, which was a lifetime sentence, there is wide variation in how long victims of modern slavery remain in their situation. Some manage to escape after a few days, weeks, or months, while others are trapped for years. For example, victims of traditional forms of hereditary, bonded labor in the brick kiln factories in India, and forced laborers in domestic servitude in Africa may be trapped for decades. In the fishing industry, extreme cases include a Ghanaian fisherman who was forced to work in Lake Volta for as long as he could recall8 and a Burmese fisherman who was enslaved for 22 years.9

Two: Workers entering the industry voluntarily with job contracts can still end up enslaved.

Even with a formal work contract and a seemingly lawful process, people may still end up enslaved. In his TED talk about modern slavery, Prof. Kevin Bales, University of Nottingham, describes how recruiters lure vulnerable people into forced labor in the informal sectors. Migrant workers and people who are unable to read are especially vulnerable. The contract may outline the unfair conditions outright, or business owners or managers may simply ignore their contractual responsibilities. These legal documents allow those who use slave labor to do so under the guise of acceptable working conditions. Blatant disregard for contractual obligations and other, similar practices link with the level of law enforcement in a country. Unethical recruitment practices, unclear contracts etc. have been documented in the global seafood industry but are by no means confined to seafood.

Three: What’s being done to address modern slavery isn’t enough, but it’s a start.

Combating modern slavery is a global agenda, incorporated as United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 8.7: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking.”10 In recent years, governments have created new laws targeting modern slavery. For instance, the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires commercial organizations that provide goods and services within the UK with a global turnover of more than £36 million to produce an annual slavery and human trafficking statement. More recently, Australia’s Modern Slavery Bill 2018 requires certain large businesses in Australia to annually report their actions to address modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains.

In 2017, the British Prime Minister launched a global Call to Action to eliminate the borderless scourge of forced labor, modern slavery, and human trafficking, while doubling the UK’s aid spending on modern slavery to £150 million. Just over a year later, 77 states have endorsed this Call to Action.11 Last year, the US pledged $1.5 billion to the largest-ever fund to fight modern slavery.12

In the fishing industry, NGOs, governments, and the private sector have responded to media reports of seafood slaves. For example, seafood industry leaders formed multiple initiatives to lead Thailand’s seafood supply chain towards a more sustainable pathway while supporting improvements to monitoring, control and surveillance capabilities.

However, these efforts are only the beginning and coordinated improvements are still needed in all industries. Situating the issue of seafood slavery in the wider context of modern slavery helps us to understand the issue holistically and find ways for industries to learn from each other. Initiatives and lessons in other industries will be explored in a future blog!


1 ILO. (2017). Global Estimates of Modern Slavery.

2 Anti-Slavery International was founded in 1839 by British abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson.

3 Anti-Slavery International. (2018). What is modern slavery?

4 ILO. (2017). Global Estimates of Modern Slavery.

5 The Global Slavery Index. (2018). Country Studies: United States.



8 Kristine, L. (2012). Photos that bear witness to modern slavery. TED.

9 Mason, M. (2015). Myanmar fisherman goes home after 22 years as a slave.

10 SDSN. (2018). Indicators and a Monitoring Framework: Launching a data revolution for the Sustainable Development Goals.

11 GOV.UK. (2018). Press release: UK leads the charge in eradicating modern slavery.

12 Guilbert, K. (2018). ‘Game-changing’ anti-slavery fund aim to save millions of lives. Reuters.