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50 million people live in modern slavery

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Modern slavery is hidden in plain sight and is deeply intertwined with life in every corner of the world. Each day, 50 million people are tricked, coerced, or forced into exploitative situations that they cannot refuse or leave. Each day, we buy the products or use the services they have been forced to make or offer without realising the hidden human cost.

Modern slavery takes many forms and is known by many names — forced labour, forced or servile marriage, debt bondage, forced commercial sexual exploitation, human trafficking, slavery-like practices, and the sale and exploitation of children. In all its forms, it is the systematic removal of a person’s freedom — their freedom to accept or refuse a job, their freedom to leave one employer for another, or their freedom to decide if, when, and whom to marry — in order to exploit them for personal or commercial gain. An estimated 50 million people were living in modern slavery on any given day in 2021. These Global Estimates of Modern Slavery produced by the International Labour Organization (ILO), Walk Free, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) form the starting point for the national estimates of modern slavery for 160 countries.

The 5th edition of Walk Free’s flagship report, the Global Slavery Index (GSI). shows how the compounding crises of the last five years have impacted modern slavery and provides a road map for actions to eradicate it.

A growing global problem against a backdrop of compounding risks

Nearly 10 million more men, women, girls, and boys have been forced to work or marry since 2016. The worsening situation has occurred against a backdrop of increasing and more complex armed conflicts, widespread environmental degradation, assaults on democracy in many countries, a global rollback of women’s rights, and the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. These factors have caused significant disruption to employment and education, leading to increases in extreme poverty and forced and unsafe migration, which together heighten the risk of all forms of modern slavery. The 10 countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery in 2021 are North Korea, Eritrea, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, Tajikistan, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. These countries share some political, social, and economic characteristics, including limited protections for civil liberties and human rights.

The largest estimated numbers of people in modern slavery are found in the following countries — India, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Türkiye, Bangladesh, and the United States. Collectively, these countries account for nearly two in every three people living in modern slavery and over half the world’s population.

Women, children and migrants are most vulnerable

The most vulnerable — women, children, and migrants — remain disproportionately affected. Over half of all people in modern slavery are female. A quarter are children. Women and girls are disproportionately at risk of forced marriage, accounting for 68 per cent of all people forced to marry. Migrant workers are more than three times more likely to be in forced labour than non-migrant workers. Those fleeing conflict, natural disasters, or repression of their rights, or seeking to migrate for work, are particularly vulnerable. More people are migrating now than at any other point in the last five decades. Refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, and irregular migrants face even greater risks during their precarious migration journey.

Two thirds of all forced labour cases are connected to global supply chains

Goods produced using forced labour now travel farther around the world than ever before, with nearly two thirds of all forced labour cases connected to global supply chains. Workers are exploited across a wide range of sectors and at every stage of the supply chain, although most forced labour occurs in the lowest tiers such as the extraction of raw materials and production stages. Modern slavery permeates industries that are characterised by informality, with higher numbers of migrant workers, and where there is limited government oversight. Global demand for fast fashion has spurred exponential growth in the garment industry, while garment workers, hidden deep in supply chains, face poor and exploitative work. Forced labour in fisheries is driven by the motivation to reduce costs amid diminishing profits and as the industry tries to meet the global demand for seafood. Despite the progress of some companies, forced labour and the worst forms of child labour are used to farm and harvest the cocoa beans that end up in chocolate. Perhaps surprisingly, recent investigations have uncovered troubling associations between children’s institutions (including orphanages) and modern slavery.

The growth of new “sustainable” industries to create renewable energies to tackle the climate crisis has led to further risks of exploitation, with evidence of stateimposed forced labour of Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim majority groups in China occurring in the supply chains of solar panels and other renewable technologies.

The urgent need to move from intention to real action

World leaders agreed on an ambitious agenda to address the world’s most intractable problems when they adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) nearly 10 years ago. This included a commitment to ending modern slavery, forced labour, and human trafficking by 2030 (Target 8.7). In the period since, a significant increase in the number of people living in modern slavery and a stagnation in government action highlights that the global community is even further from achieving the goals they agreed to make a priority. When it comes to addressing modern slavery, the global community must move from intention to action without delay. This requires reinvigorating the movement to end modern slavery, with survivors leading the way to identify lasting solutions. It requires recognising that the world’s great challenges are all interconnected: modern slavery, climate change, conflict, poverty, gender inequality, and racial injustice.


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