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Contemporary Forms of Slavery Requiring Action by Governments:
Examples of a Large-Scale and Persisting Problem in the 1990s

(prepared by  Anti-Slavery International for the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery in June, 1995) 

Although the world is no longer blighted by the forms of slavery which were practised openly in many countries during the nineteenth and even early twentieth centuries. and against which both governments and non-governmental organisations campaigned slavery nevertheless continues to be reported in a wide range of forms. 

To most people slavery conveys images of the Atlantic slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with all its nightmarish horrors. They consequently consider slavery to he simply an anachronism from a barbaric past. Abhorrence of slavery is professed everywhere. National laws ban slavery and the prohibition is enshrined in international treaties. notably the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 4 of which guarantees that "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude, slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."Yet slavery still occurs. 

Ships transporting slaves and cotton fields cultivated by slave labour may be a thing of the past, but the horrors and humiliation associated with slavery have not disappeared. They have simply taken on other forms. Some contemporary slaves still work in the fields. but they also provide manual labour in many other industries. in urban as well as rural settings. These contemporary forms of slavery are as old as traditional "chattel" slavery and attempts to eradicate them have so far been much less successful than last century's campaigns against the traditional slave trade.

During the course of the twentieth century the international community has recognised that slavery takes many forms and is found in many different parts of the world. The debates which preceded the adoption of the two main international conventions against slavery. the first in 1926 and the second in 1956, provide ample information about the various forms of servitude which the international community wished to prohibit. However, as the twentieth century comes to a close. the governments of states which have not yet ratified the main international conventions against slavery tend to assume that slavery in all its forms has been abolished and that there is no need to take steps to accede to these conventions. Similarly, states which ratified them in the past tend to assume there is no longer any need for new laws or other measures to ensure that the conventions are implemented. In practice, there is a pressing need for laws and action to ensure that new forms of exploitation and oppression do not take the form of slavery, and that those responsible for slavery-like practices are identified and stopped. 

When it adopted an international treaty prohibiting slavery almost 60 years ago, the United Nations' predecessor, the League of Nations, gave the following definition of slavery: 

"Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised." (Article 1 (1) of the 1926 Slavery Convention)  Although this Convention was intended primarily to abolish slavery and the slave trade in countries where these were still legal practices, this definition of slavery makes clear that the international community was also determined to abolish a wide range of other practices which involved partial "powers" of ownership and were considered to be "analogous to slavery", even though they had not previously been defined as slavery. These included debt bondage, false adoption (of children to work as domestic servants), servitude imposed by serfdom or caste, and domestic slavery. Some of these were the subject of explicit prohibition by the United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. Others were not defined and prohibited explicitly, but again the discussions which preceded the adoption of the Convention make it clear that they were intended to he covered by the Convention and that states should take action to prevent them from occurring.

The explanations given below concern the different forms of slavery which continue to he reported at the end of the twentieth century and which still require action by governments to prevent them. They begin by looking at the cases of conventional slavery which still occur, as well as the after-effects of slavery for former slaves and their descendants, which still require action by governments. The four "institutions and practices similar to slavery" which were banned by the 1956 Supplementary Convention are then described, each of which persists in the 1990s: together they affect millions of victims. These are: debt bondage; serfdom; servile marriage; and child labour. Finally, three other forms of servitude are described. which exhibit many of the characteristics of slavery: servile domestic works forced labour and servitude for ritual or religious purposes. Governments are under an obligation to take urgent remedial action to prevent these if they amount to slavery-like practices, as is often the case.

In a final section, the groups of people who are most vulnerable to slavery are described. including social groups which are labelled in their own societies as having near-permanent servile status.

1. Traditional "Chattel" Slavery

Although there are no countries in which slavery remains a legal practice, there are several countries in which traditional "chattel" slavery was only abolished recently or where despite abolition in the past there has been a recent resurgence of traditional slavery. 

Countries experiencing a resurgence in slavery are mostly those affected by armed conflict somewhere in their territory. In the areas of conflict the rule of law has effectively been suspended and soldiers or armed militia are able to force people to work for them unpaid (ie perform forced labour) without fear of retribution; such practices have been reported chiefly in areas controlled by armed groups which have not achieved international recognition.

However, there have also been recent reports of government soldiers forcing civilians to work as slaves, outside any legal framework. Soldiers and militias have also been reported to engage in the slave trade, selling those they have captured to work for others. 

There are several countries in which slavery has been formally abolished relatively recently, where insufficient measures have been taken by the authorities to implement abolition. In such cases, both former slaves who have in theory been released from servitude, and members of their families (even those born after slavery was officially abolished) are still obliged to provide services to a former owner or owner's family. Evidently in such cases it is important that the state concerned should be reporting on a regular basis to the international community about the progress made towards the complete eradication of all slavery-like practices. However, neither the 1926 Slavery Convention, nor the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery require States Parties to report on measures taken against slavery, nor have they established any form of permanent treaty-monitoring committee (in contrast to most recently adopted United Nations human rights instruments). As a result, it is only if governments or non-governmental organisations choose to present information to the annual meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which was established in 1974 and reports to the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (and indirectly to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights), that the international community becomes aware of persisting patterns of slavery or slavery-like practices.

2. Bonded Labour 

Article I of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery prohibits " 

(a) Debt bondage, that is to say, the status or condition arising from a pledge 

b) a debtor of his personal services or those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined:'' 

The Chief Justice of a country in which debt bondage. also known as "bonded labour". still occurs, has described it in the following terms: 

"(Bonded labourers) are non-beings, exiles of Civilisation, living a life worse than that of animals, for the animals are at least free to roam about as the) like"... "This system, under which one person can be bonded to provide labour for another for years and years until an alleged debt is supposed to be wiped out, which never seems to happen during the lifetime of the bonded labourer, is totally incompatible with the nets egalitarian socio-economic order which we have promised to build... " 

Hundreds of thousands of bonded labourers are tied to their employers and places of employment because of loans which they or their parents have received. The Supplementary Convention does not prohibit people from taking loans in money or in kind and then repaying their debt by working for the person who has given the loan. However, it does forbid any cases of "debt bondage" in which the precise terms of the repayment have not been specified (so the person making the loan can potentially add unspecified interest or other costs to the loan), or in which work done by the debtor is not rewarded at least at the same rate paid for other similar work. 

Traditionally bonded labour occurred mainly in the agricultural sector in rural areas where bonded labourers worked as general servants as well as in farming. In cases of chronic bondage, debts are inherited from one generation to the next, maintaining members of a family in permanent bondage in return for an old loan, the details of which have long been forgotten In some cases employers who are owed money "sell" the debt to a new employer; the difference between such transactions and the slave trade is one of semantics more than substance. In extreme cases, bonded labourers receive no payment at all for the work they do; at the other end of the spectrum they may be bonded by relatively small advances on their wages, which are endlessly repeated, so that they become "bonded" to their employer. 

Nowadays there are also many cases of shorter term bondage. For example, migrant workers who agree to travel to another province or country in order to work may then discover that they are obliged to work unpaid on the grounds that their wages must be used to repay the costs of their travel, accommodation and meals.

Loans are accepted by people who work not only on farms but in a wide variety of low status manual jobs, for example in stone quarries, at brick or charcoal kilns, at looms making carpets or cloth, preparing fish or other sea-food for freezing, and making a variety of articles out of glass. 

Apart from the manual nature of these jobs, they are generally hazardous and threatening to health. In many cases entire families have to work (for example in stone quarries or at brick kilns) to pay off debts. In other cases, parents "pawn" their own children, sometimes from the age of as little as four or five years of age, in return for loans which they never repay; the child consequently remains a bonded labourer for the rest of his or her childhood. 

3. Serfdom 

Article I of the Supplementary Convention also prohibits "Serfdom." That is to say, the condition or status of a tenant who is by law, custom or agreement bound to live and labour on land belonging to another person and to render some determinate service to such other person, whether for reward or not, and is not free to change his status, ''It is not just debts which tie farmers to a landlord. In many countries individuals, families or entire social groups have traditionally been obliged to work for others for little or no reward. Although this status usually has no basis in law, the practices nevertheless persist and are frequently enforced with violence at local level. 

For example. many agricultural workers are not able to get access to work or to land on which to produce food for their families unless they agree to work on a permanent basis for richer landlords either on their farms or in the homes. They have to accept a form of serf or servile status. The size of their landlord's estates varies as does the number of serfs involved from just one or two to several hundred. Some large estates are a law unto themselves, creating their own economies and currency. for example "paying" their workers in a special non-official form of currency which can only be exchanged for goods at a shop run on behalf of the landlord.

Elsewhere, the same sort of servile status, although formally abolished in law, receives legitimacy through local religious beliefs. This is particularly the case in countries with caste systems, where at village level particular families are obliged both by tradition and sometimes by violent coercion to work unpaid as sweepers, cleaners or in various forms of agricultural work. In extreme cases, the services which workers must provide include domestic work both during the day and at night, and on some occasions the sexual services of women workers or the wives of male workers.

The governments of countries in which such practices persist are obliged by the Supplementary Convention to take action to end them, not just in law (for example, by declaring caste or serf status to be abolished), but also in practice. 

4. Servile Marriage

Article I of the Supplementary Convention prohibits 

"(c) Any institution or practice whereby. 

"(i) A woman, without the right to refuse, is promised or given in marriage on payment of a consideration in money or in and to her parents, guardian, family or any other person or group, or "(ii) The husband of a woman, his family, or his clan, has the right to transfer her to another person for value received or otherwise; or "(iii) A woman on the death of her husband is liable to be inherited by another person," 

This prohibition affects a wide range of practices which continue to be reported in the 1990s. Taken together with other international agreements. It imposes significant obligations on governments to make changes to both the law and practices in their countries, not only those directly concerning marriage, but also others which have an indirect effect. 

A typical case in which this article of the Supplementary Convention is violated occurs when a 12-year old girl is told that her family has arranged her marriage to a 60-year-old man. Ostensibly she has the right to refuse, but in practice she has no opportunity to exercise that right and is unaware that she can do so. The marriage is considered to constitute "servile marriage" and to be a form of slavery if a payment of any kind is made for the girl that exceeds the amount of gifts or money customarily exchanged at the time of marriage in the country or culture concerned. 

In many cultures it is traditional for money or goods to exchange hands at the time of marriage. In some cases it is the husband or his family which pays bridewealth to the bride's family; this practice can evidently deteriorate into a form of "purchase" for the bride and her services, and as such is prohibited by the Supplementary Convention. In other cultures, it is the bride's family which must provide money or goods to the husband or his family, and their failure to provide large enough amounts sometimes provokes acts of violence against the newly-married wife. 

In order to reduce the opportunities for servile marriages of this sort to occur, the Supplementary Convention also imposes an obligation on States Parties to take other positive action. Article 2 stipulates that "With a view to bringing to an end the institutions and practices mentioned in article 1 (c) of this Convention, the States Parties undertake to prescribe, where appropriate, suitable minimum ages of marriage, to encourage the use of facilities Whereby the consent of both parties to a marriage may be freely expressed in the presence of a Competent civil or religious authority and to encourage the registration of marriages. " 

In practice, many states which have acceded to the Supplementary Convention have not yet implemented Article 2. Subsequent international instruments have reinforced the obligation that states should make the registration of marriages compulsory.

For example, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, stipulates in its Article 16 that: 
"2. The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry Compulsory."

The final part of Article 1 of the Supplementary Convention dealing with servile marriage (iii) becomes relevant when, just a few years after her marriage, the same young girl's older husband dies. In numerous countries the young widow is "inherited" by a male member of her husband's family, often a surviving brother; this practice is known as "the levirate". She is remarried whether or not she desires the new marriage and whether or not her new husband already has an existing wife. This form of inheritance is sometimes justified by those who practise it on the grounds that it ensures the widow is looked after and does not become destitute. However, she would only fall into destitution if she is already the victim of a servile marriage in which she is denied the right to property of her own or the opportunity to develop her own sources of livelihood. 

The practice of "the levirate" is clearly condemned by the Supplementary Convention and the governments of states which have ratified the Convention are under an obligation to eliminate it. For the woman concerned is being treated as a piece of property, unless, that is, it can he shown that she enters into her new marriage freely and with her own consent. That is. she should not feel coerced because other local customs prevent her either from inheriting enough property from her original marriage to maintain a reasonable income or from generating her own income. 

The Supplementary Convention is also quite categorical in banning any sale or transfer of a married woman by her husband or his family to a new husband in exchange for money or other goods.

5. Child Labour 

Article 1 of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery prohibits " (d) Any institution or practice whereby a child or young person under the age of 18 years, is delivered b) either or both of his natural parents or by his guardian to another person, whether for reward or not, with a view to the exploitation of the child or young person or of his labour." 

This is not a prohibition of all child labour, for the emphasis is on preventing parents from passing their child on to another person (whether or not any money is exchanged) who effectively gains control of the child and the child's labour. The prohibition in the Supplementary Convention was designed among other things to prevent children from being exploited as domestic workers, either through the practice of "sham adoption" (i.e. being nominally welcomed into a new household as a member of the family, when the real motive is to require the new member to work as an unpaid domestic servant).

In reality it remains a common sight in countries throughout the world to see a child of 10 or 12 years of age, usually a girl child, sweeping a house or scrubbing the floor or front porch. This is sometimes a member of the family, but all too often it is a domestic worker "employed" in conditions of near slavery. 

Children's labour is also exploited in other ways which contravene the Supplementary Convention, as well as other international human rights standards such as the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 32 contains clear principles to protect children from the exploitation of their labour: while children may work, the Convention stipulates that their jobs should not be "hazardous" and should not "interfere with (their) education" or "be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development." The priority due to primary education means that children below the age of 12 should not have jobs. 

Child labourers are routinely prevented from attending school, despite being of primary school age, and, in the case of child domestic workers, even though there may be other children attending school in the household where they work. 

In all cases child labourers are dangerously vulnerable to physical abuse (both beatings and sexual abuse), excessively long hours or being made to work in dangerous or cramped conditions. Girl domestic workers, in particular, are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Although many countries have laws regulating the hours or conditions for child labourers, employers often avoid visits by labour inspectors by claiming that children are working in "cottage industries" or "family units". 

Debt bondage, described above, affects many children as well as adults. Parents "pawn" their own children. sometimes from the age of as little as four or five years, in return for loans which they never repay. Often they are pawned to employers who stress the need for what they call the "nimble fingers" of children to undertake particular forms of work, when in fact they are seeking a docile labour force which can he coerced into obeying orders and is unable to defend itself or organise any collective action in its own defence. For example. a 10-year-old boy works 14 hours a day at a loom. At night he sleeps under the loom, for his parents live hundreds of kilometres away. They sent him away to work in exchange for a loan which will in theory be repaid out of his wages. He is no longer chained to the loom as he was when, at the age of eight, he first started work and tried to escape.


1. Migrant Labour

It is not only children who find themselves doing domestic work in conditions of near slavery. And although there are millions of domestic workers employed in the world, they are largely invisible. working by themselves in private homes. 

Throughout the world domestic workers are generally afforded inadequate protection by the law as far as minimum wages or conditions are concerned, and some categories of domestic workers are subjected to slavery, particularly children and immigrants who work and live in the same house as their employer and are paid little or nothing for their work. Both are particularly vulnerable, being cut off both from their own families and from local society and the possible protection which social contacts or local institutions might provide. Cases of enslaved domestic workers continue to be reported in developed countries -- where servants are brought in from other countries, either legally or illegally, and then treated like slaves. 

In many cases domestic workers receive low wages or no wages at all, on the grounds that they receive food and lodging, but there is no attempt to ensure that this payment "in kind" is worth as much as the monetary wage which workers would be paid for similar long hours in any other comparable sector. Their living conditions, as well as conditions of work, are often extremely harsh, but are virtually never inspected by any independent authority. 

Before both the conventions against slavery were adopted, there were discussions about whether the definition of slavery should explicitly prohibit domestic slavery or define the circumstances in which domestic work amounted to slavery. The conclusion, however, was that the general definition of slavery adopted in the 1926 Slavery Convention ("any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership") covered domestic workers along with all others.

2. Forced Labour

"Forced labour" is not an alternative term for slavery, although confusion is sometimes created by implying that slavery is simply a category of forced labour. The use of forced labour does not carry with it the same notions of "ownership" as slavery or slavery-like practices. International standards adopted soon after the 1926 Slavery Convention prohibited the use of forced labour other than by the state, but recognised that the state was entitled to oblige people to undertake work of certain types and in some particular circumstances. Although the circumstances in which individual citizens can be obliged to perform forced labour are now clearly circumscribed, international standards recognise that states may make convicted prisoners perform forced labour and also allow states to require some or all of their citizens to perform compulsory military service.

In reality, political authorities, both government forces and other political movements which exercise powers of coercion, are able to force individuals to work without payment, often in harsh or dangerous conditions. Such cases have been reported recently mainly in countries affected by war or civil conflict, where forced labour is reported both in areas of fighting and elsewhere, with the typical image of a column of civilian porters carrying heavy loads of military equipment towards the battle-front. surrounded by armed men in uniform who threaten to shoot anyone who drops their load.

While there have been persistent reports of forced labour since the Supplementary Convention was adopted in 1956, the increase in the number of armed conflicts at national level in the 1990s has seen a corresponding increase in reports of forced labour. Those enslaved in this way are often the weak or defenceless -- refugees, members of ethnic or national minorities, women or children. In the worst cases. they have been used as "human mine detectors" or arbitrarily killed by soldiers after working for them. International standards limit the use of forced labour very strictly and urge its total elimination. An International Labour Office (ILO) Convention adopted 65 years ago obliged each state ratifying the Convention to "suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms within the shortest possible period" (ILO Convention Number 29 of 1930, concerning Forced Labour). in the meantime, its use was to be limited "for public purposes only and as an exceptional measure": that meant that only government officials could order forced labour, and only in emergencies. A further convention (ILO Convention Number 105 of 1957, concerning the Abolition of Forced Labour), prohibits the use of forced or compulsory labour in some specific circumstances, notably its use for political (re)education or as a punishment for political views, for economic development in general, or as a means of discrimination. Most recently, the same ban on forced or compulsory labour has also been reiterated in the UN 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 8.3). 

3. Slavery for Ritual or Religious Purposes 

The fundamental right to freedom of religious belief, guaranteed by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, makes it sensitive to criticise any practices prescribed by religion or carried out in a religious context as violations of human rights. However, just as ritual killings have invariably been the subject of prohibition, so certain forms of servitude occur in a religious context, which constitute forms of slavery.

Some such cases also occur as a form of sacrifice: in an effort to atone for an act interpreted as a sin or offence against holy law, families offer one of their members to work unpaid for a religious institution. In several parts of the world, for example, girls or women are obliged to live and work in religious institutions and to provide sexual services to priests or others -- on the pretext that such women are "married" to a deity. In many cases they perform other unpaid services. They are not free to change their place of residence or work, and often remain in servitude for many years and retain a distinct status for the rest of their lives.

In other cases, the students or followers of a religious teacher or leader work effectively in servitude, either forwarding all their earnings to their "master", or working unpaid for long periods in return for religious instruction in an exploitative situation. 


The victims of most forms of contemporary slavery are characterised by their vulnerability as much as by their poverty. While their poverty may link them to the general problems of economic development and deprivation in their society, their vulnerability is almost always an issue which governments have a responsibility to deal with in order to uphold the basic human rights of parts of their population which will otherwise face discrimination.

The following are groups which are particularly vulnerable and Swhose conditions of employment therefore require especial monitoring by the authorities of states which are committed to presenting slavery.

(i) Women 

Women are vulnerable both because male employers can use physical force against them and because of the additional possibility of sexual abuse. 

There is a growing debate about whether all those who work in the sex industry, for example as prostitutes. should be considered to be victims of slavery, as they are in most cases completely unprotected by the law as far as their terms of employment and conditions of work are concerned. There are cases where women are clearly forced to work as prostitutes, which evidently violates the conventions against slavery. But there are also other cases where women choose to work in this area, and, whatever the pressures which push them to make this choice, they deserve the protection of the law against hazardous conditions or slavery-like terms of employment.

(ii) Children 

Children have already been mentioned above as a group which is especially vulnerable, particularly when child labour occurs in conjunction with certain other practices, such as debt bondage, early marriage and domestic work. They too are vulnerable to physical abuse and intimidation and face the threat of sexual abuse. 

(iii) Migrant Workers 

These include both migrants who cross international frontiers to work and those who travel considerable distances within their own country. In both cases they are deprived of the protection of their own families and others who know them. Those who enter foreign countries illegally to work are particularly at risk, because their illegal status usually puts them effectively beyond the protection of the law. However, people who migrate within their own countries are also at risk. For example, young people are told by recruiting agents that they will receive good pay elsewhere, but then find themselves locked into a factory and unpaid, for example shelling prawns for a sea-food freezing company. A solution taken by some states to prevent such exploitation, at least at the inter-state level, has been to replace private recruitment agents by state-run employment agencies. 

(iv) Groups Attributed Low Social Status

In many parts of the world there are social groups, defined by racial or ethnic origin, religion, class or caste, which for historical or cultural reasons are regarded by their fellow citizens as having near permanent servile status. They belong to distinct and powerless groups, and as a result can be exploited by others without fear of any consequences. In numerous cases such groups are subjected to slavery or to practices similar to slavery by "owners" who are frequently allied with those in power and thus able to stifle any complaints or threats of legal action. 

(v) Nomadic Groups

The process of economic development has frequently led to pastoral and other nomadic groups moving into permanent settlements and abandoning their traditional economy. In such situations, where they have lost their traditional source of food and income. They have been particularly vulnerable to exploitation of their labour.

(vi) Indigenous Peoples 

Similarly, in many countries indigenous peoples have been prevented from maintaining their traditional economies, either as a result of government efforts to change the local economy or as a result of the take-over by others of the land they use. Once again, with no alternative sources of income, they enter the labour market and frequently become the victims of slavery-like practices.

In this and the other cases outlined above, governments evidently have a responsibility under a variety of international human rights standards to ensure that particularly vulnerable groups are not subjected to discrimination, and have a particular responsibility under the Slavery Conventions to prevent them from being exploited by any slavery-like practices. 

This article is reprinted from the Web Site of Anti-Slavery International, the world's oldest human rights organization.

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