New Statistics: 40.3 Million People Enslaved

Photo © International Labour Organization 2017

Two weeks ago, the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) and Walk Free Foundation announced new statistics around the number of people enslaved throughout the world: 40.3 million.

On any given day in 2016, an estimated 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery. Of these people, 24.9 million were in forced labour and 15.4 million were in forced marriage.

40.3 million people are enslaved on any given day. That’s insane. It’s not an issue that ended in 1865, as our American-centric minds like to think. In fact, in the past five years, 80 million people experienced some form of modern slavery for periods ranging from a few days to five years.

Did the number jump?

No. The conservative figure in the past – and the one used by the ILO – was 20.9 million. That contrasted with Walk Free Foundation’s estimate of 36 million. Why the difference? Well, because measuring an illegal activity is indescribably hard, and no one agrees on what should be considered “modern slavery.” The ILO counted child labor, forced labor, sex trafficking, bonded labor, child soldiers, and domestic servitude. Walk Free Foundation included forced marriage into their estimates, accounting for some of the wide difference between 21 and 36 million.

In this recent, joint report, the two organizations found that 24.9 million people are enslaved in forced labor, while the other 15.4 million are in forced marriages. The 24.9 million estimate is not too terribly far off of the ILO’s previous estimates of 20.9 million.

Taken from the 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery

Women & Girls

The new estimates also show that women and girls are disproportionately affected by modern slavery, accounting for almost 29 million, or 71% of the overall total. Women represent 99%  of the victims of forced labor in the commercial sex industry and 84% of forced marriages.

The US vs. Under-Developed Countries

Many people believe that human trafficking, forced labor, forced commercial sex, and child labor happen in countries like Thailand, India, and Nigeria. Yes, it is happening there, and in droves, but it’s also happening in countries like the US, Canada, and the UK. The report estimates that slavery affects 3.9 million people in Europe and Central Asia and 1.9 million people in the Americas. The report does not break down those numbers by country, but it certainly happens in every single one of them.

The Things We Buy

An estimated 25 million people were in forced labor at any moment last year. Out of them, 21 million were forced to work in the private sector, doing jobs as child care, housekeeping, manufacturing, mining, construction, agriculture, and sex work. (The other 4 million were forced to work by governments – think child soldiers and slave, prison labor.) Who do you think is buying the things made with all of that free labor? Yep – you and me.

That’s why this is so important. 21 million people work each and everyday as slaves, harvesting and creating raw materials, products, and supplies that are used in the things we purchase. It’s not going to be labeled on our products because why would any supplier advertise that? But, suppliers do need to outbid others, and one key way of doing that is eliminating paid labor from their costs.

That’s why certifications like Fair Trade Certified™ and Rainforest Alliance Certified™ are helpful; they ensure – and audit – that all materials are verifiably produced with paid labor.

Read the full report here.


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