The United States is one of only 17 countries that still impose state-sanctioned forced labor, according to a 2023 report by Walk Free, an Australian human rights organization.
Along with the U.S., other countries that exploit modern-day enslavement include Belarus, Brazil, China, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mongolia, Myanmar, Poland, Russia, Rwanda, Turkmenistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, said a story in The Washington Post by Miriam Berger about the report.
State-imposed labor “is one of the forms of modern slavery that could be addressed relatively quickly as it’s about state policies,” said Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, deputy director of Walk Free.
The report highlights different types of state-compelled labor. The abuse of detainees was the most common, such as in the U.S., accounting for more than half of the instances analyzed.
The U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate and approximately 800,000 people are forced to work under threat of punishment in America’s jails and prisons, according to a 2022 report by the American Civil Liberties Union cited by the Post.
The forced-labor traces to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865 with one exception: “…as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted.”
“The roots of modern prison labor can be found in the ratification of this exception clause at the end of the Civil War, which disproportionately encouraged the criminalization and effective reenslavement of Black people during the Jim Crow era, with impacts that persist to this day,” reported the ACLU.
However, supporters of forced prison labor in the U.S. argue that the practice is constitutional. They claim it also helps to offset incarceration costs and aids in rehabilitation and job training for those incarcerated, noted the article.
International law allows governments to require citizens to work under certain conditions, such as national emergencies or compulsory military service. State-imposed labor can vary from prisons, as in the U.S., to work camps and other abuses in countries such as North Korea and Eritrea, stated the Post.
About 3.9 million people worldwide were forced to work by government authorities in 2021. They are within the estimated 50 million people enslaved by other means, such as in involuntary labor or marriage.
Larsen said these estimates are likely to be undercounts, as “modern slavery” often remains hidden and unspeakable. The term “modern slavery” is used to incorporate “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power,” cited the article.
The highest rate of slavery of all types was found in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Kuwait, Mauritania, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
More than half of enslaved people live in the Group of 20 nations — a bloc of the world’s wealthiest economies. Modern-day slavery is prevalent in every region of the world and is evidenced in debt bondage, human trafficking, forced marriage and involuntary labor, noted the Post.
The practice of modern slavery is on the rise globally. Since Walk Free’s last assessment in 2018, an additional 10 million people were estimated to have been forced into slavery worldwide.
Walk Free wrote that this comes “against a backdrop of increasing and more complex conflicts, widespread environmental degradation, climate-induced migration, a global rollback of women’s rights, and the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“It is a problem of our own making,” Larsen said. “So it is completely within our power to address.”