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Slavery is an awful aspect of human history, an awful aspect which most of us have confined the idea of to the annals of history itself. We learn about it at school, hear about the impacts of it through the news and we sit and recoil in disgust at the motion pictures. Despite all this, very few people ever genuinely consider it a practice that is still very much an ongoing reality for many today. While more recent stories of sweatshops and exploited workers have increasingly appeared in media, the true scale of this global crisis is rarely understood.

As recently as 2016 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated there could be more than 40 million people worldwide currently subject to slavery-like conditions. Where is the communication of this terrible phenomenon breaking down? One of the biggest issues facing the wider understanding of the scale of the problem is the inability of the international community to universally define what modern slavery actually is.

Historic slavery was a structured aspect of society, legal and legislated, and therefore had clear bounds within which it could be strictly defined. The most universally recognised definition of which is that of the 1926 Slavery Convention, within which historic slavery was defined as:

For the purpose of the present Convention, the following definitions are agreed upon:

(1) Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.

1926 Slavery Convention

League of Nations

In a future post, I will delve deeper into the complexities and shortfalls of this definition yet for most purposes the definition has allowed for the systematic removal of legalised slavery and the legal slave trade worldwide.

Modern slavery, however, is a phenomenon defined by a broad category of illegal practices. The most common practices which are used to characterise the phenomenon of modern slavery are forced labour, debt bondage, human trafficking and economic or sexual exploitation. Each of these practices alone are complex and massive societal issues which are often also subject to indecisiveness surrounding their own definitions.

Finding a way to bridge the differences and encompass each of these complex practices in a clear and decisive definition of modern slavery is core to the difficulty faced in finding an agreed definition. This has lead to an environment saturated with similar yet varying definitions from governmental organisations such as the ILO and United Nations through to prominent non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International or the Anti-Slavery organisation. Exacerbating the issue is a lack of any significant agreement in international law or legislation outlining a definition.

This is broadly summarising a very deep and complex issue which sits above all efforts, both governmental and non-governmental, in combatting modern slavery. Each can sustain several essays on themselves alone, but despite this complexity, there are strong and encouraging endeavours underway to bring unity to this long unsettled subject of a definition.

Further, the complexities of the above issues have not resulted in the absence of any comprehensive definitions, if anything, the opposite. Combatting modern slavery is a long term and eternally paramount issue to champion and for the moment the definitions which exist facilitate amazing efforts to do this. However, the need for an aligned and agreed international definition for modern slavery is growing with every passing day. With such in mind, the importance of prioritising the work to universally define the phenomenon in international law cannot be understated.