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The Global Slavery Index: Redefining Slavery

An index of modern slavery recently published by the Walk Free Foundation ranks 162 countries according to the prevalence of slavery and slavery-like practices. The report states that 29.8 million people around the world are in modern slavery. While it does cast some light on an issue that is difficult to measure and includes many different practices, Walk Free also gives an incredibly broad definition of what is considered slavery or slavery-like practices. This redefines what we associate with the word slavery and changes its implications.


The Global Slavery Index, published by the Walk Free Foundation, is the first of its kind and through its broad definition of slavery and slavery-like practices, places the number of people in modern slavery at a staggering 29.8 million.

While the term slavery in the Western world used to spark images of the Atlantic Slave Trade, it has become accepted that modern slavery is quite prevalent and takes a very different form.  According to the Walk Free Foundation, slavery is “the possession and control of a person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty, with the intent of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal. Usually this exercise will be achieved through means such as violence or threats of violence, deception and/or coercion.”

The index uses three variables to compose the ranking: a composite estimate of the number of people in slavery in each country, estimates of the level of human trafficking from and into each country, and of the level of child and early marriage in each country. As expected, government statistics on such practices is lacking and organisations which attempt to gather information can be hindered. The report acknowledges the potential inaccuracy in its findings and states that they “are keen to learn from and work with any person or government seeking to expose the true prevalence of this crime.”

The highest ranked countries for prevalence of slavery are Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan, India and Nepal. The countries lowest on the list are Iceland, Ireland and the UK. However, the report states that slavery is not absent in these countries, but rather less prevalent. The authors of the report aim to uncover the reality of slavery in expressing its presence everywhere. Though the numbers may be small in the developed world, they exist. However, it is difficult to clarify whether those in modern slavery are nationals of the countries or not.

The findings are significant in highlighting issues that are difficult to capture and assess. Through this incredibly broad definition, forced marriage becomes a similar practice to forced labour, and debt bondage is relatable to human trafficking. The principle is that all these practices take away the freedoms of a person. They are all issues that can be currently defined as human rights abuses and efforts are being made to eliminate them. However, in associating them all with slavery, this index clearly attempts to place a new light on the issues by describing them as the worst human rights abuse of all.

Walk Free has created this index and made the data available in order to help solve the problem; information is a key first step. However, in no way could all these practices be addressed in a similar way and the approach to eliminating them has become complicated; not only is it a fight against forced labour, it is now a fight against forced labour and slavery (and several other practices that fall into the same category). The measures needed to end human trafficking and debt bondage and forced child marriage are not in relation to each other.

The authors of the report have taken a major step in development politics. Acknowledging the existence of modern slavery, attempting to define it, illuminating issues that have been kept in the dark, and stating what all these factors have in common, which is lack of personal freedom. However, it remains to be seen if efficiency can arise from such broad definitions.

One possibility is to place the various practices in different categories.  For example, those primarily concerned with financial aspects, or sexual practices. In this way the index would clearly define which countries suffer from which issues, as well as the ways that solutions can be implemented considering the boundaries.

The aims of the report go generally towards ensuring that governments can take initiative to respond to the issues by criminalising forms of slavery and enforcing the rule of law. Slavery is largely a globally condemned practice. Though it has existed in many cultures and taken different forms, it is now illegal in most countries which the report discusses. However, due to the definitional issue, slavery can no longer be described as what it was a century ago when it was still commonplace in parts of the world. With a changing global structure, comes modern slavery. It is now the time for countries to adapt their laws to the current reality. Whether or not it is truly to be considered slavery, the report is essentially highlighting the importance of freedom of choice and calling for states to act accordingly.


– Khaldah Salih


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About Khaldah Salih

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