5. “Modern Slavery” in the United States and around the World

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 403,000 people in the United States were living in conditions of “modern slavery” in 2016. As the Guardian reported, the Global Slavery Index defines “modern slavery” broadly to include forced labor and forced marriage.

The Global Slavery Index (GSI) is produced by the Walk Free Foundation, an organization that combines research and direct engagement to influence governments and businesses to address modern slavery as a human rights issue. The GSI draws on national surveys, reports from other agencies, such as the United Nations’s International Labour Organization, and databases of people who have been assisted in trafficking cases.

According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 40.3 million people were living in modern slavery in 2016, with females comprising the majority of the victims (71 percent). The index found the highest levels of modern slavery in North Korea, where an estimated 2.6 million people—or one-tenth of the population—are victims of modern slavery.

Andrew Forrest, one of Walk Free’s cofounders, told the Guardian that the prevalence of modern slavery in the United States was “truly staggering” and “only possible through a tolerance of exploitation.” The GSI noted that forced labor occurred “in many contexts” in the United States, including in agriculture, among traveling sales crews, and—as recent legal cases against GEO Group, Inc. have revealed—as the result of compulsory prison labor in privately owned and operated detention facilities contracted by the Department of Homeland Security.

The report further noted that migrants—and especially migrant women and children—are “particularly vulnerable” to modern slavery in the United States due to a variety of factors, including immigration status, lack of familiarity with US employment protections, and the fact that migrants often work in jobs that are “hidden from the public view and unregulated by the government.” In addition, the report noted, “Increasingly restrictive immigration policies have further increased the vulnerability of undocumented persons and migrants to modern slavery.”

As the Guardian reported, according to the GSI, the estimate of 403,000 people enslaved in the United States actually understates the country’s role in contributing to global slavery, because the United States imports many products—including laptop computers, mobile phones, clothing, fish, cocoa, and timber—that are “at risk of being produced through forced labor.”

The GSI made specific recommendations for how the US government could address modern slavery. These recommendations included stronger legislation to raise the minimum age for marriage to eighteen in all states, criminalizing forced marriage, and prohibiting criminalization of child victims of trafficking; improved support for victims, including training for officials who connect them with services; and standardizing data collection and developing a central repository to make national estimates of the prevalence of modern slavery “more feasible.”

The 2018 report showed a surprisingly high prevalence of modern slavery in developed nations, but a universal legal definition of “modern slavery” has yet to be established. As the Guardian reported, other anti-exploitation groups raised questions about the Walk Free Foundation’s definition of slavery and its methodology for determining the numbers of affected people. For example, in a recent issue of Anti-Trafficking Review, an expert on international trafficking law, Anne Gallagher, argued that “universal, reliable calculation of the size of the problem, while an important goal to strive for, is not yet possible,” due to a lack of shared definitions, standards, and measurement tools.

Apart from the Guardian article, the 2018 Global Slavery Index received limited coverage in the New York Times, and by CNN and CBS News. The Times’s coverage highlighted the case of a former North Korean slave who is now a student at Columbia University, leaving details about the prevalence of slavery in the United States to the article’s later paragraphs. CNN noted that the report listed the United States as “a world leader” in addressing forced labor in supply chains, while CBS News reported that “the U.S. does better than most countries in tackling the issue.” In March 2019 a Forbes article that reported on the United Nations’s International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade drew on data from the Global Slavery Index, but also noted “limitations” to the data on modern slavery.

Edward Helmore, “Over 400,000 People Living in ‘Modern Slavery’ in US, Report Finds,” The Guardian, July 19, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/19/us-modern-slavery-report-global-slavery-index.

Student Researcher: Hogan Reed (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)