The impact of technology on contemporary slavery in the 21st century

The Abolition of Slavery

The 1926 Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery (the Slavery Convention) defines slavery as the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.[1] This definition was expounded in 1957 through a Supplementary Convention[2] that extended the legal scope of the Slavery Convention in relation to other international frameworks. It recognized that slavery, the slave trade, and similar institutions and practices prevailed in all parts of the world. Gradual abolition of slavery took place over hundreds of years, from the early 1800s with the United Kingdom and the United States and the abolishment peaking in 1807 and 1808, respectively.[3] Theoretically, slavery was completely abolished in 1981, when Mauritania became the last country to outlaw forced labour.[4]

A key peremptory norm of general international law, the prohibition of slavery is entrenched in various instruments. It is incumbent of every country to take measures to ensure that forms of slavery do not persist within its territory. The 1998 Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court also lists enslavement as one of the crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the Court.[5]

Contemporary forms of slavery

Traditional slavery, although officially abolished in 1926, has not been completely eradicated. Today enslavement no longer revolves around legal ownership, but the illegal control of persons.[6] Additional variant forms of slavery sprung up after the global contention that slavery is a human rights violation. According to Anti-Slavery International, modern slavery, also known as contemporary slavery or neo-slavery, is the severe exploitation of other people for personal or commercial gain. It may entail ordinary activities where persons become entrapped making clothes, serving food, harvesting crops, working in factories, or domestic activities, where the control is exercised through threats to deportation, physical violence, huge debts, or confiscation of legal identification documents. It also extends to the sexual exploitation of women and children.

Contemporary forms of slavery include but are not limited to issues such as:

  • Forced labour. Forced labour generates $150 billion in illegal profits globally. On 11th June 2014, governments around the world agreed to be bound by the Forced Labour Protocol of the International Labour Organization (ILO), setting forth a legally binding framework for the eradication of all forms of slavery. The Protocol complements the 1930 Convention on Forced Labour and addresses new, complex, and emerging issues on slavery in the 21st century. The Convention on Forced Labour banned debt bondage, serfdom, child marriage, servile marriage and child servitude. Unfortunately, these practices still occur today, illegally.
  • Child slavery. According to the United Nations, the global estimate of children working in slavery or slavery-like conditions including forced labour was about 152 million in 2017.  
  • Domestic servitude, sexual slavery, and servile forms of marriage. As a legally permitted labour system, traditional slavery has been abolished everywhere but it has not been completely eradicated. It can persist as a state of mind among victims and their descendants and among the inheritors of those who practised it long after it has formally ended.[7]

Impacts of technology

An estimated 40 million people worldwide suffer from one form of modern slavery. The abuses target vulnerable people including children. Due to the illegal nature of control, it has proven difficult to provide accurate statistical estimates on the global extent of modern slavery.

The 2017 global estimates by the ILO showed that women and girls are disproportionately affected by modern slavery, accounting for almost 29 million, or 71% of the overall total. Women represent 99% of the victims of forced labour in the commercial sex industry and 84% of forced marriages.[8]

Technological advancement plays a key role in fostering the prevalence of modern slavery. Furthermore, the lack of adequate international regulatory frameworks on monitoring of social media platforms, mobile phone applications, and websites critically risks exposing unsuspecting individuals into slavery. Today, contemporary forms of slavery have been heightened due to the advancement of technology and widespread, highly unregulated social networking platforms.

In 2019, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired an investigative journalism report that exposed abuse of Facebook, Instagram, and other mobile commodity applications known as 4Sale and Haraj.[9] The investigation highlighted how human beings are appallingly sold like common goods. The “employers” engaging in the vices exploited loopholes in their countries’ labour laws. Despite the presence of stringent laws on domestic employment in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other parts of the Middle-East perpetrators were able to bypass the system and continued to perpetuate online slave markets. In Kuwait, the BBC investigative report revealed that “apps including 4Sale and Instagram enable employers to sell the sponsorship of their domestic workers to other employers, for a profit. This bypasses the agencies and creates an unregulated black market which leaves women more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.” According to the investigation, the employment of domestic workers under the age of 21 is prohibited in Kuwait. Notwithstanding, children as young as 16 were traded on online applications.

Furthermore, in Saudi Arabia, the investigation found hundreds of women being sold on Haraj, another popular commodity app. There were hundreds more on Facebook-owned Instagram.

Affirmative action and anti-slavery campaigns

Contemporary slavery is internationally abhorred. Multiple organizations each year engage in activities that help stop further entrenchment in society, minimize the effect on victims, and rehabilitate affected individuals.

The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage promotes the rights of adolescent girls to avert marriage and pregnancy and enables them to achieve their aspirations through education and alternative pathways.

In the tech-space, Apple and Google maintain a zero-tolerance policy for online trafficking and slave-like transactions after being implicated in enabling online slave markets on their platforms. Facebook highlighted banning the hashtag that translated to #maidsfortransfer.[10]

Social media have been used to highlight commercial slavery by corporations. This has led to boycotting of the commercial services or products, forcing companies to embrace and establish zero-tolerance policies against repressive labour practices.

Corporate approaches to addressing modern slavery involve calling upon consumers to boycott products and services by supply chains that employ slave-like conditions in food, cosmetics, distribution, fashion and clothing items, hardware and tech industries among others.

In this era, virtual petitions are used as human rights enforcement strategies. Online global campaigns such as the 50 for Freedom campaign, challenges ordinary people around the world to call on governments to ratify the ILO Protocol on Forced Labour through signing the online petition.

The global community must work together to end modern slavery once and for all. This may be done through individual, governmental, and/or the international community’s concerted efforts in identification, protection, and rehabilitation of victims. Internationally, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery (currently Mr Tomoya Obokata) promotes human rights protection through interventions such as calling on governments to end modern slavery in their countries, conducting country visits, and reporting on the status of elimination efforts worldwide.

In response to a call by the UN Special Rapporteur for submissions protecting human rights during and after the COVID-19 pandemic[11], Anti-Slavery International shared their 2020 global survey findings. Its Free the Slaves, and Freedom from Slavery Forum, Survey: The impact and response to Covid-19, May 2020 revealed that as in previous global emergencies, national responses are predominantly not reaching those in slavery. Of the respondents, 73% said their Government had not included or had scarcely included the needs and rights of people affected by slavery (45% and 28% respectively). 77% said that their Government had not introduced specific measures for people in slavery, and 74% said that emergency responders were not being made aware of the needs of populations affected by modern slavery.[12]

Anti-slavery response in the 21st century needs to address the emerging trends that perpetuate and promote the iniquity within modern society. To combat current forms of slavery, it is important to ensure participation of the youth and encourage stringent regulation of abuse on social media and web-based services to monitor and curb emerging slavery trends. This will help in early recognition of the signs so that necessary protective measures are taken in time. Promoting education and public awareness through strategic advocacy, reporting of cases, civil protest, leadership development, and skilled training for survivors, as well as emergency humanitarian assistance will go a long way to alleviating modern slavery.


Camillah Agak Knight is a human rights & public interest litigation lawyer based in Kenya. She served as a UN Volunteer under UNDP Kenya, in a human right non-governmental civil society organization with the mandate of prevention of all forms of torture, violence and discrimination and as a lawyer in the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as Office of the Attorney General.


[1] Article 1, Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery, entered into force 9 March 1927.

[2] Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, entered into force April 30, 1957. Available at: http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/instree/f3scas.htm

[3] Reuters (2019) CHRONOLOGY-Who banned slavery when? Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-slavery/chronology-who-banned-slavery-when-idUSL1561464920070322 

[4] The Economist (2018) Supply chains based on modern slavery may reach into the West. Available at https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/07/19/supply-chains-based-on-modern-slavery-may-reach-into-the-west

[5] Article 7(1)(c) and (g) of the Rome Statute. Available at: https://www.icc-cpi.int/resource-library/documents/rs-eng.pdf) Under the Statute “Enslavement” means the exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over a person and includes the exercise of such power in the course of trafficking in persons, in particular women and children (See Article 7(2)(c)).

[6] The International Labour Organization. Forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking. Available at: https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm

[7] OHCR, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Slavery/SRSlavery/Pages/SRSlaveryIndex.aspx

[8] The International Labour Organization together with Walk Free Foundation and the International Organization on Migration developed the joint Global estimates of modern slavery and published findings showing the latest data on slavery prevalence worldwide in the 2018 Global Survey Index. Available at: https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/findings/highlights/

[9] Owen Pinnell & Jess Kelly. Slave markets found on Instagram and other apps, (BBC News Arabic) 31 Oct 2019. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50228549

[10] The United Nations Population Fund, formerly the United Nations Fund for Population Activities.

[11] Office of the High Commission on Human Rights, Call for contributions: Protecting human rights during and after the COVID-19. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Slavery/SRSlavery/Pages/callCovid19.aspx

[12] Anti-Slavery International, Protecting human rights during and after COVID-19, A response by Anti-Slavery International, June 2020. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Slavery/SR/CfI_COVID19/Anti-Slavery_International.docx

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