Issue Summary

Quick Facts

  • In numbers, there are more slaves in the world today than were seized from Africa in 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
  • Children make up a significant percentage of the world slave labor force.
  • Between 15 and 20 million children are working as slaves at this very moment.

Modern Child Slavery

Many people are surprised to learn that in sheer numbers, more people around the world are enslaved today “than were seized from Africa in 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” (National Geographic) [1] 246 million children in the world work [2]; yet an estimated 120 million of these children are working full time, everyday, all year long. With this in mind, there is clearly a blurred line between “labor” and what must be considered modern child slavery. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are over 10.8 million children age 5-14 involved in work that by it nature, has, or leads to, adverse effects on the child’s safety, health (physical or mental), and moral development.[3] Further, there are as many as 20.4 million children age 5-17 involved in the worst forms of child labor (forced/bonded labor, armed conflict, prostitution and pornography, and illicit activities, which we call slavery.[4]

Forms of Slavery

Several kinds of slavery exist today. Forced labor occurs when the laborer is physically or mentally pressured to work involuntarily. Bonded labor, the most common form of slavery, occurs when a person must work to pay off a debt. Often, however, this debt is passed down for generations, and the bonded laborer has little understanding about how much of the debt is paid off. Children are often completely unaware of any debt that has been passed on to them from their parents, but are still forced into labor to repay it. Furthermore, persons who have always been enslaved become dependent on the bond owner since they have never known anything else. Chattel slavery is a system in which the enslaved person is born into a condition of permanent slavery, and is not treated as a human, but only as a commodity to be sold or traded as the owner chooses. This system is often so ingrained in a society that neither slave nor owner is likely to question its moral correctness. Lastly, religious slavery results from traditional religious practices, and generally involves the dedication and enslavement of children to temple gods or priests.

Children today may be found laboring on plantations or farms, in households performing domestic work, in factories, in mines, on fishing platforms, on construction sites, in bars, restaurants or tourist sites, in the commercial sex industry, on the street as beggars or street sellers, and as soldiers. The majority of child laborers, an estimated 70%, work in agriculture.

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Where Slavery Exists Today

Industries in which child slaves are used exist in all parts of the world. Children are enslaved in the cotton fields of India, fishing industry in Ghana, charcoal production in Brazil, gold mines in Peru, brick producing kilns of Nepal, stone quarries in south Asia,  as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates, and as domestic servants and sex slaves all over the world, including in the United States and other developed countries. Because they are more easily manipulated, children are typically given work in the most unhealthy and dangerous conditions.

Child Slave Trafficking

The trafficking, or forced recruitment and transportation, of persons for labor, involuntary servitude, debt bondage or slavery is a large business, generating around $7 billion a year according to the United Nations. Because they are more vulnerable, dependent, easily manipulated, and less aware of or able to defend their rights, children constitute a significant number of those trafficked. The ILO estimates that 1.2 million children were victims of trafficking globally in 2000. While developing countries tend to be the source of those trafficked, developed countries tend to be the destination. The U.S. Department of State conservatively estimates that as many as 20,000 workers are trafficked into the United States annually, about 5% of which are children.

Impact on Children

Whatever the form or circumstances of slavery, its effects are detrimental to a child’s physical, mental and intellectual development, preventing the child from growing to his or her full human capacity. Often, children are forced to work in the worst conditions. For example, thousands of children in India , Nepal and Pakistan are forced to crouch in dark, crowded, narrow rows 14 hours a day weaving carpets. This may be good business for the slave owner, but a child carpet weaver grows up without education and often with debilitating back, leg, finger, eye, and lung problems due to his/her work and living conditions. (RUGMARK) Aside from the physical, mental, and emotional damage inflicted upon enslaved and exploited children, communities and families suffer as well. The impact of child slavery on society as a whole must be considered. By allowing millions of the world’s children to be directed towards a life of physical labor and exploitation rather than education, growth and development, we are setting up barriers to the success of future generations of community and family leaders. Children who are raised only learning exploitation, violence, and slavery often perpetuate the same violence on future generations of children in their community.

Vulnerability and Slavery

Several conditions make a country especially vulnerable to slavery. Slavery is first and foremost an economic institution that thrives in countries suffering from extreme poverty. Given the poverty levels, poorer segments of the population tend to have more children as a social security measure. Thus, population pressure makes more children vulnerable. Many children cannot attend school because families cannot afford or do not have access to education due to financial, physical, or social barriers; lack of a primary education is a significant factor in vulnerability. Conflicts cause economic instability, displacement of people, dissolution of families, the spread of weapons, and the increased vulnerability of populations in the conflict area. Poor economic conditions also limit the ability and will of a government to pass and enforce laws prohibiting exploitive labor and slavery. All of these circumstances lead to the increased vulnerability of populations. A cycle of slavery perpetuates poverty when communities allow their children to grow up with violence and exploitation rather than with education.

Protecting Children

As child slavery comes to the forefront of global concerns, efforts to end it are growing. Legislation is one approach, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, which outlines the rights of every child. It has been ratified by every country in the world except for Somalia and the United States of America. In addition, the ILO Convention 182, which defines child slavery – as the worst forms of child labor – including trafficking of children, forced/bonded labor, prostitution, combat, etc., and deems the enslavement of children illegal, worldwide. Many various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Anti-Slavery International, Free the Slaves, Global March Against Child Labour, and YAP International, work to increase public awareness of child slavery. Children have also started their own organizations, like the African Movement for Working Children and Youth in Africa, to voice their child labor concerns to the public and demand attention from their governments. However, to make long-term progress, the poor economic conditions of developing countries fostering slavery and universal primary education must be addressed. In addition to government action, companies in industries where slavery is used must be encouraged to take responsibility for their working conditions by creating slave-free work places and monitoring systems, throughout the various levels of their supply chain.

Get Involved

There are several ways you can help to eliminate child slavery. First, you can become informed, and teach others about the continuing and expanding use of child slavery. Become aware of companies that sell products produced by child labor, place pressure on these companies to change their practices through direct contact, and reduce the demand for their products if they are unwilling to change. You can encourage change through your elected representatives. You can also help by supporting the work of local, national, and international organizations like Youth Advocate Program International in the fight to end child slavery worldwide.


[1] Bales, Kevin. 1999. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Berkeley: University of California Press.

[2] Stolen Childhoods (Galen Films, Robin Romano Productions)

[3] Investing in Every Child: An Economic Study of the Costs and Benefits of Eliminating Child Labor, 2004. Geneva: International Labor Organizations, p. 30-32.

[4] Ibid.

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Edited by: 

Darlene Adkins , Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition; Vice President, National Consumers League
Jill Christianson, International Relations, National Education Association
Diane Mull, President-CEO/Executive Director, International Initiative to End Child Labor
Dr. Vidyasagar, Research Director, Global March against Child Labour
Kevin Bales, Executive Director, Free the Slaves