The Intimate Link between Technology and Slavery

Slavery and technology are more intimately linked than you might think. Today, tech might be the only way to finally destroy slavery forever.
Christopher McFadden
The Slave Trade by Auguste Francois BiardWikimedia Commons

Slavery, as it turns out, is not something of the past.

With all the work that has been done by Western civilization to stamp it out, there are still some places in the world where slavery is still rife.

But, of course, it can also be argued that some technology, like social media, is also becoming a means of enslavement for us all. We won't be touching on this subject within this article, however (as interesting a concept as it is). 

We'll explore what is meant by "Modern Slavery" and see what tech can do to help crush it once and for all

What is the definition of modern slavery?

Modern slavery is generally defined as something like:

"[The] recruitment, movement, harboring or receiving of children, women or men through the use of force, coercion, abuse of vulnerability, deception or other means for the purpose of exploitation." - NHS England.

In this sense, it is no different to the traditional practice of slavery which has been a common feature of all civilizations, and nations, throughout time.

Many Western nations have, thanks largely to the British Empire during the 19th Century, outright banned the practice in modern times. 


But, you may or may not be surprised to hear, slavery is actually still a thing today. So-called "failed states" like Libya, are prime examples of places in the world where slavery is still a common practice. 

But, there are others who would point out that since the 19th Century, slavery has changed form and still harms people around the world. 

According to activist sites like there are an estimated 40.3 million "modern" slaves around the globe. Of those 10.9 million are children, 24.9 million are in forced labor, 15.4 million are in forced marriages and 4.8 million are in forced sexual exploitation. 

What are the different types of modern-day slavery?

According to activists fighting modern slavery, it comes in several distinct forms. These include:

1. Forced labor is a very real problem in places

Forced labor, as the name suggests, is whereby anyone is compelled to work or provide services against their will for fear of some form of punishment. 

modern slavery chains
Source: pxhere

2. Debt bondage is rife in some parts of the world

Debt bondage, otherwise known as bonded labor, is one of the most prevalent in the world. This is where someone borrows money but cannot repay it.

For this reason, they are then required to provide labor to pay it off.

While this might sound like an all-too-common feature of modern life in developed nations, it is really referring to anyone who loses control over the conditions of their employment and debt, without having national institutions (e.g. the "Rule of Law") to help them out.  

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For example, in India, it is not uncommon for lower caste members like "Dalits" or "Untouchables" to borrow money of a wealthy farmer to cover medical costs. This often leads to decades of debt bondage with no possibility of help from the authorities. 

3. Human trafficking is all too common

This, as the name suggests, is the transportation, recruitment and/or harboring of people for the purpose of exploitation. This usually involves a constant threat of violence or other coercion. 

modern slavery bed
Source: Pixabay

4. Descent-based slavery is still a thing in places

This is one of the oldest forms of slavery. It is where people are born into slavery because their ancestors were captured and enslaved at some point in history. It can be found in some African societies. 

5. Child slavery is sadly a thing

This includes things like child trafficking, child soldiers, child marriage and child domestic slavery. It should not be confused with child labor, whereby the child tends to be paid, albeit meagerly, for their own work.

6. Forced and early marriage are also considered slavery

This, as you are probably aware, is where someone is forced into marriage against their will. Or are unable to leave a marriage later down the line. 

It usually involves children, but not always. 

modern slavery arty
Source: Pixabay

How many slaves are there in 2018?

Modern slavery is a little bit of a nebulous term as it is fairly tricky to provide estimates of slaves around the world in 2018. It also varies depending on which circumstances in a person's life you would consider as "slavery". 

But some organizations have attempted to quantify the number of slaves around the world. For example, The Global Slavery Index estimated the total number of slaves in 2018 is probably somewhere in the order of 40.3 Million.

Of these, it is also estimated that 71% are female, and 29% male. 

You'll not be too surprised to hear that most of the countries where slavery is prevalent are those where the rule of law is weak. They are also those places around the world where government corruption is common. 

modern slavery infographic
Source: Global Slavery Index

But, even in developed countries like the UK, there can be circumstances where slavery can occur. This will tend to include migrants with irregular or non-existent visa status who are susceptible to coercion under threat of revealing them to national authorities like the Border Agency. 

According to The Global Slavery Index, government response to Modern Slavery varies widely. Countries like the Netherlands, UK, and USA takes the issue very seriously. 

Others like North Korea, Libya, Eritrea and the Central African Republic do not appear to consider it a problem. 

 How technology and slavery are intrinsically linked

With that said, are there any ways that can help stamp out modern slavery

As it turns out, technological development is intrinsically linked to the history of slavery. Various historians have argued throughout the years that they are, in part, mutually exclusive.

Where slavery is prevalent, technological development is suppressed or non-existent. The reason for this is fairly self-explanatory. 

With an abundance of "free" labor, there is no incentive to develop solutions to improve efficiency.

Slavery is also not "free" labor per se, slave owners need to feed, tend to, and shelter their workforce. 

This can cost significant sums over a slave's lifetime. For this reason, visionaries like Adam Smith realized the inherent contradictions and fallacies of slavery from an economic point of view. 

In his seminal work, "The Wealth of Nations," he rationalized that slavery, in and of itself, was highly inefficient and a false economy.

"From the experience of all ages and nations, I believe, that the work done by free men comes cheaper in the end than the work performed by slaves. Whatever work he does, beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own." - Adam Smith

But in the modern world, slavery has changed somewhat, and its motives (including profit) are far more nefarious. 

Technology like AI, ML, and other technological developments are now being actively developed to help fight modern examples of slavery.

Many developed countries and companies have developed regulations and policies to actively look for and tackle modern slavery in their organizations and supply chain. 

According to sites like the Global Initiative, tech companies are also exploring and developing some technological solutions to fight against "modern slavery".

These include things like:

Cloud and mobile apps to allow first-line responders, the public, and vulnerable workers to raise awareness, access resources, and report concerns, among a wide variety of other solutions.

Some NGOs, like Liberty Asia, are using cloud and database tech to help in the fight against modern slavery. 

Basic hardware, such as laptops and smartphones to be made more easily available by technology providers to NGOs supporting vulnerable groups and victims.

National helplines that raise awareness, support victims, and serve as hubs of data collection, analysis, and sharing to advance our understanding of and response to slavery.

Data tools to deal with the problem of data overload, that can disable effective responses and identify connections in the data that would otherwise be missed (e.g. using AI, blockchain, and Big Data).

AI and Big Data, for example, can be used to identify and track human traffickers online and off. 

Supply chain transparency tools to improve traceability and transparency of supply chain labor standards.

Whether these kinds of initiatives will help end modern slavery is yet to be seen. Any efforts to stamp out slavery of all kinds, should be welcomed by all. 

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