Top of page
Skip to main content
Main content

Contemporary Unfreedom & Trafficking

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2016, more than 40 million people were victims of “modern slavery” worldwide; more than half of them (or 24.9 million) were in forced labor imposed by private or state authorities; close to 5 million were sexually exploited. 71% of victims of modern forms of forced labor are women and children. The vast majority live in areas of the world formerly colonized by Europe, in Asia and Africa.[1] These figures are surprising to many; we live at a time when freedom has become a legally paradigmatic and unquestionable category, yet the number of people held in modern modes of unfreedom far exceeds that of people held in historic slavery back in the 18th or 19th centuries when the institution was still legal. Is freedom’s legal universalism and the oppression of millions of people through slavery-like conditions a contradiction? Are these figures and freedom’s legal universalism a paradox? This session of the seminar will offer a unique opportunity to think through this question; it will open a conversation that rarely occurs—between modern-day abolitionists and anti-traffickers and scholars working on historic slavery and reparations for it.

The ILO figures suggest the persistence of a seemingly paradoxical pattern that started back in the 18th century and that historians have long pointed out. That moment constituted the height of the legal Atlantic slave trade, yet it occurred against the background of growing abolitionism and as the notion of universal freedom was becoming increasingly pervasive in the Western world. The pattern continued after the abolition of legal slavery; the number of people forced into slavery-like conditions (e.g., through indentureships, restrictive immigration laws known under the umbrella term “guest worker programs,” and deliberate state neglect or incarceration) kept increasing. Since the 1990s, when they started gaining visibility, anti-trafficking campaigners, or “modern-day abolitionists,” have pointed to the analogous tactics used by historic slavery and contemporary traffickers. Indeed, present-day traffickers target vulnerable people who they remove from communities and racialize—subject to strictly hierarchical gender roles—in order to turn human beings into fungible objects. Anti-trafficking campaigners use such references to historic slavery, albeit rarely, to shock Euro-American audiences. At the heart of modern-day abolitionist rhetoric tends to lie the assumption of a clear-cut distinction between the times when slavery functioned legally as a state-sanctioned institution and the post-emancipation era. When conditions analogous to historic slavery occur in the post-emancipation era, contemporary abolitionists suggest it is because states do not impose the rule of law.

In imagining such a clear-cut chronological demarcation between a time before and one after legal slavery, today’s abolitionists portray “modern-day slavery” as an illegal aberration from existing legal frameworks that can protect human freedom, if only they were put in practice.[2] Representations of historic slavery as a mere analogue for present-day forms of oppression leave out continuities, cultural and socio-economic, between the past and present-day forms of oppressions: the populations subjected to modern-day modes of unfreedom live in the Global South, in economies that European colonial powers have exploited for centuries and where they have imposed strict racial logics. Such modern-day abolitionist representations also leave out the state’s tacit or direct participation in modern unfreedom: states can draw arbitrary boundaries between slavery and forms of oppression that, while morally reprehensible, are nevertheless still considered to be legal. States also participates in forced labor through their carceral policies. Post-emancipation governments’ omissions and silence on the continuities between historic slavery and modern-day forced labor is convenient as rescuing individuals provides more media-ready portrayals of policy in action than repairing historic harm.[3] The latter is a process that would require a more systemic approach to global supply chains, redistributive justice, and the upending of racial hierarchies. Present-day anti-traffickers and the states that have embraced their agendas have often used anti-trafficking laws to restrict immigration, as a way of putatively reducing the incidence of forced labor. This approach also often results in more policing of already vulnerable populations, women, immigrants, people of color.[4] Using a humanitarian anti-trafficking rhetoric to reinforce racialized control is, by no means, new. Historic abolitionists in the British Empire invoked their humanitarianism to colonize African societies, as examined in the “Abolition & Human Rights Discourse” session. Throughout the 20th century, modern abolitionists also targeted and disciplined “white slaves” (e.g., women accused of sex work, many of whom were working-class immigrants) in cities across the Western Hemisphere.[5]


[1] International Labor Organization, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery (Geneva, 2017);

[2] On such a modern-day abolitionist stance, see for instance, Kevin Bales, Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016). Quirk and LeBaron spell out a series of critiques in a roundtable published on Open Democracy’s Beyond Trafficking and Slavery Section. A link to their own piece is here:

[3] Joel Quirk, “Reparations are Too Confronting: Let’s Talk about Modern-Day Slavery Instead,” 2015

[4] Denise Brennan, Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

[5] Jessica Pliley, Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).