I recently heard this suggested. My understanding of slavery today is:

  • children slave labor
  • the sex slavery world epidemic
  • the promised citizenry in the Middle East to workers who come to build their tall buildings, only to have their passports taken away

I have no first-hand accounts of any of this, only stories. Is this a fact? That we are living in an era where slavery is at an all time high?

  • 25
    The problem is drawing a line between what's "just" exploitation and what is slavery. Also I personally would only be barely surprised if it was true, considering how populated China and Inda are, how much the west relies on cheap labour here to sustain their high quality of live.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 21:00
  • 49
    How do you define "slave?" As someone formally owned by a "master?" Or as someone working in inhumane conditions with limited chances of escape /release. Are 'sweatshop" workers considered slaves in your view? To ask about slavery, you pretty much have to define it. If you're comparing "child labor" and "sex slavery" to what used to be called "slaves," the formally owned kind, you're comparing apples and oranges.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 22:39
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    Might this be a better fit for www.skeptics.stackexchange.com ?
    – walrus
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 10:19
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    Can we include "indentured servitude," under the definition of slavery? Of course your third bullet-point would be included: Arrive in Dubai (example), have your passport legally taken away until you can work off the costs the 'owner' incurred by transporting you; finally even abuse of this policy where you can't get your passport back to travel.
    – Mikey
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 12:04
  • 4
    @davidjwest: Which only points out how silly some people can be. What some people see as "slavery" (usually the view from their ivory towers :-)) can be anything from a boring job to a highly-desirable lifestyle to the people involved.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 19:10

3 Answers 3


Let's start with some basic facts.

  1. There are more people in the world today than ever before in human history.
  2. Because of 1) there are more poor people in the world than for most of human history, even though the percentage is falling.
  3. Some percentage of desperately poor people work under inhuman conditions that many "civilized" people would characterized as "slavery."
  4. Slavery is hard to define. So let's take its historical definition; where an interest in a slave was an ownership position with clear property title and transfer rights sanctioned by the owner's government. No modern government condones slavery in this form. There are no places where there is clear, lawful transferable title to a slave at a national level. By this (de jure) definition, there are fewer slaves in the world today than there were in say, the 19th century.
  5. There are, in some parts of the world, forms of "employment" that could reasonably be construed as "de facto" slavery, where individuals are trafficked and exploited in contravention of existing laws. Counting such individuals would expand the definition of slavery beyond the historical one.
  6. If you took an "apples to oranges" comparison of the types of people in 5), above, you may well find that those people outnumber the people counted and characterized in previous centuries as slaves under number 4.
  7. Even so, an apples to apples comparison is hard to come by because statistics for previous centuries do not always include the de facto, as opposed to the de jure kind of slaves.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 17:32
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    Do you have citations for any of your definitions or numbers?
    – 1006a
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 22:28
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    Some numbers which may be interesting to add: In 1860, just before the start of the civil war, there were 31.2 million Americans, of which 3.95 million were slaves (13%). Based on the 2016 population of America, 323 million, if just 1.2% of people were slaves, there would be more slaves today than in the civil war. Now I doubt America has 1.2% slaves, but if you expand similar thinking to the entire world, with their 7,600 million people, many in 3rd world nations, those numbers don't look too unplausable.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 15:20
  • 1
    " there are more poor people in the world than for most of human history, even though the percentage is falling." While I agree with answer in general it depends greatly on what you mean by poor. At last until recently the size of absolute poverty was decreasing. For example according to World Bank between 1981 and 2008 number of people living on <2005 $1/day decreased from 1500M to 750M and <2005 $1.5/day (new absolute poverty threshold) from 2000M to 1250M. Now - measuring poverty is hard and controversial topic but it is probably getting better even in absolute numbers. Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 18:31
  • To 6: if you take this definition, you may find that the number of slaves outnumbers the number of living humans in old times ;)
    – TomTom
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 10:23

The claim has certainly been made on a number of occasions. In an article titled Chained to scourge of slavery in the Sydney Morning Herald (dated 6 December 2012), the Australian journalist, Elizabeth Farrelly, observed:

The United Nations estimates there are more slaves in the world now than ever. Human trafficking - which is not the same as slavery though the two are clearly linked, since most slaves are trafficked and most trafficking ends in slavery - rates with arms and drug trafficking among the world's richest illicit industries.

As regards definitions, "slavery" is defined in article 1 of the Slavery Convention of 1926, as:

“the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”.

There is no internationally agreed definition of servitude, but the term is generally used to describe a condition of serfdom, without implying an element of ownership of the victim as the term “slavery” does.

It isn't clear exactly which report is being referred to in the article quoted above (if only journalists cited their sources!). There are a few possibilities. A strong contender is the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 2012.

So, in short, it seems that the answer is yes. It appears that there are actually now more slaves in the world than ever before.

Obviously, it must be noted that the global population is greater now, but the statistic is nevertheless particularly remarkable since slavery is illegal in most modern countries today.

  • 1
    I'm confused by your final paragraphs. You give a definition of slavery but then seem to conflate trafficking with slavery in a way your sources explicitly do not. I do agree that the legal definition is overly narrow, but even then trafficking is much broader than the image the word "slavery" brings to mind. For example, the report you reference splits trafficking into three parts one of which is forced labor described as "slavery or practices similar to slavery and servitude". Less than 50% of the detected victims fall into this category by that report. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 7:52
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    Other ways trafficking can differ from the non-technical view of slavery (let alone the legal definition you gave) is that the victims may (nominally) voluntarily and knowingly choose to enter into these situations. That is, they could literally just walk away, not go to the brothel or factory, with little to no repercussions from the trafficker. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 7:52
  • Also, your second section is a word-for-word quotation except for "[a]s regards definitions" of the report you reference and should probably be cited as such. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 7:53
  • @DerekElkins You do seem confused. The only time I even mention trafficking is in the title of the linked report. The publication date of that report makes it a strong contender for the report mentioned in Elizabeth Farrelly's article. As I said, there are a few possibilities. The first part of the 2nd paragraph is taken directly from article 1 of the (linked) Slavery Convention of 1926. I added the point about the lack of a definition for servitude to address points raised in the comments on the question, and yes, it is taken from the linked report & should probably be referenced as such. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 9:51
  • @DerekElkins TBH, I was hoping the quoted UN report would include some analysis or metrics for determining numbers of enslaved people in past eras (which would bring this question more into the realm of history). I couldn't find any, which means this is probably more a question of politics or legal definition than history. However, you're welcome to browse the UN reports for yourself. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 10:01

Tom Au's enumerated answer is really good. That said, you merely have to provide statistics that make it implausible that there could ever have been as many slaves as we estimate are in existence today.

This should be relatively easy when considering the massive increase in population over the past ~200 years. Take a glance at any world population graph, and consider that the percentage of enslaved population must fall with a factor equal to the factor of total population growth, for the absolute number of enslaved to diminish.

So for example, a population of 1,5 billion, with 30% of the population enslaved, would have to develop into a world with less than 6% (30%/5) enslaved, when the population reaches 7,5 (1,5x5) billion.

Insert your own data points and you will have the answer you seek.

  • 2
    This is a more a commentary on another answer than an answer to the question. There is a model for an answer, but no data to enable us to test that model.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 11:04
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    An unfortunate side effect of denying new community members the right to comment until they have more rep. As for data, the world population data is widely available for any given dates that you like (albeit rough estimates of course), so only the estimated percentage of slavery for any given date remains speculative. However, we can ballpark this percentage, depending on the definition of slavery, and the exact date we want to use for comparison.
    – SPE
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 11:55
  • Excellent point - although in my opinion, comments should be restricted to questions & clarifications. I agree with your point, but I think this would have been a better answer if it had worked through estimated values for the model. Is the 30% value arbitrary? Is there some basis for that estimate?
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 12:03
  • 1
    30% is completely arbitrary, yes. I am not qualified to estimate this value for any combination of time and slavery definition. The example was just to clarify how simple it is to support the claim, provided the data can be estimated to fall within a range, even if it has a high degree of uncertainty.
    – SPE
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 13:50
  • World population at 1 Christ was assumed 300 million Tops, estimages going down to 155 million. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population_estimates
    – TomTom
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 10:27

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