How Many Slaves Are There?

Just because you pass a law on paper abolishing slavery does not mean that slavery ceases to exist.  Indeed, during the 19th and 20th centuries the colonial powers passed laws and issued decrees abolishing slavery, but slaves still existed in those colonies (usually no one told them that they were free, and often the colonial administrators in the colony did not wish to offend the chief by forcing him to free his male and female slaves). 

Some are in traditional forms of slavery which were never eradicated.  However, one of the most surprising aspects of this problem has been the emergence of slavery in areas where had not existed for over a hundred years. 

No one knows precisely how many slaves there are.  In 1995 this Society estimated that there were 2.7 million people throughout the world — mainly children — in conditions of slavery.  The International Labor Organization estimates that the number is slightly higher than this, and we would suggest that its estimate is as accurate as you can get.

In arriving at our estimate of 2.7 million slaves, we used the common law definition of slave (see the previous page: "What Is Slavery?").  This definition excludes other forms of servitude, such as bonded labor, forced labor and servile concubinage.  In addition, it only includes one category of trafficked women and children.  Some would probably say that our definition — which is the definition enunciated in 1880 by the High Court of Allahabad in India — is too narrow.

It is simply that we include the other forms of servile labor under distinct categories rather than lumping them together under one heading.  A "one size fits all" is not suitable for an organization such as ours which focuses on rescue and manumission programs rather than on political advocacy.  This is quite important for our organization as we use different in-country programs to deal with and eliminate different forms of servitude.

A recent newspaper article questioned the credibility of estimates by Professor Kevin Bales and others which give an estimate of 27 million slaves, or others who give an estimate of 100 million slaves.

The criticism is unfair to Professor Bales and is based on a misunderstanding.

Professor Bales uses a different definition of slavery (which includes pawns and bonded laborers) to arrive at his estimate of 27 million.

Others arrive at an estimate of 100 million by including other categories of trafficked women and children which we exclude.

Furthermore, the criticism does not appreciate the difficulties in estimating the number of slaves.  Our organization has direct in-country experience in estimating various forms of servitude and child labor in quite small areas, for example, 5,000 slaves in one remote rural region, 3,000 bonded laborers in another small rural area or 5,000 child prostitutes in one city.  Several methodologies are employed, but it is important to stress that if we say that there are 5,000 slaves in a certain region that does not mean that this is the precise number, but rather that it is in the range of about 4,500 to 5,500.

Following a meeting in London in January 2006 with our sister organization, Anti-Slavery International, it was agreed that we would henceforth adopt the estimates published by the International Labor Organization.  After all, debating whether there are 2.7 million slaves or 27 million slaves will not free a single child!  The task is to free them!


What is Slavery?

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Does Slavery Still Exist?

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Last Updated April 03, 2007

Links to other pages dealing with slavery:

Does slavery still exist?

What is slavery?

West African slave trade

Slavery in South Asia

Slavery on the cocoa plantations in West Africa

Traditional slavery in West Africa

Hierodulic servitude in South Asia


Rescuing slaves

Slavery Convention 1926






  2003 by the Anti-Slavery Society. The text on any page may be reproduced provided that the source is acknowledged.  This does not apply to photos.