• Judith Newton

Q & A: What is Slavery?

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Q: What is slavery?

A: The definition of slavery is a person who is legally owned by another person and is forced to obey them (English Oxford Living Dictionary 2018).

Q: What does modern slavery mean?

A: Modern slavery is a new term to differentiate slavery that is occurring today from the more traditional form of slavery that was seen in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade which ran from the 1400s through to 1888. During this period approximately 9.5 million African people were taken from their homelands to work primarily as slaves in agricultural industries throughout the European Caribbean colonies, and the United States of America). While this form of slavery was called chattel slavery and was rationalised by some as being a necessary part of colonisation, a way to obtain more workers to tend the new lands. However, for others it was a violation of human rights and actions were taken to put an end to this injustice (Bravo 2007 213-214).

While there are some similarities between modern and chattel slavery, such as the slaves’ efforts to gain their freedom and government practices to restrict their movements, it is the differences that help to distinguish between the two forms of slavery. First, modern slavery is about the power associated with the right of ownership and not the actual formal and legal ownership of a person as seen in chattel slavery (Allain 2009, 2). Next unlike chattel slavery many of the victims are willing to leave their homelands and start a new life in another country, living in conditions they perceive will be better than those they left behind (O’Connell Davidson 2015, 77-78). Finally, modern slavery is a covert crime that is not as visible to the public as chattel slavery and therefore more difficult to detect (Datta and Bales 2013, 829)

Q: How many people are enslaved today?

A: Anti-Slavery International estimates that approximately 40.3 million people are in slavery today. It is very hard to gain accurate numbers because it is not a blatantly visible crime and those people that enslave others are experts in concealing their crime.

Q: So who are slaves today?

A: Men, women and children can all be victims of modern slavery. Some of the factors that can influence people's vulnerability to modern slavery are poverty, lack of education, conflict and crisis in their homelands, corruption in the police force and legal systems inheriting slave status because your family are slaves, and bonded slavery where you are forced to repay a debt by being enslaved to the person who you owe money (Anti-Slavery International).

Q: Do most of the people who are enslaved today work in the sex industry?

A: No. Modern slavery includes forced marriage, forced labour, state-imposed forced labour, and forced sexual exploitation.

Q: OK, I see that modern slavery is a horrible problem but surely it doesn't happen in countries like Australia?

A: Sadly, it does. Our most up-to-date estimate comes from the Global Slavery Index 2016, where it is estimated that there are around 15,000 people enslaved here in Australia.


Allain, Jean. 2008. "The definition of slavery in international law." Howard LJ 52: 239.

Bravo, Karen E. 2007. "Exploring the analogy between modern trafficking in humans and the trans-Atlantic slave trade." Boston University International Law Journal 25: 207.

Datta, Monti Narayan and Kevin Bales. 2013. "Slavery in Europe: Part 1, Estimating the Dark Figure". Human Rights Quarterly 35 (4): 817-829.

O’Connell Davidson, Julia. 2015. Modern Slavery: The margins of freedom. n.p.: Springer.

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