Are There Really More Slaves Now Than Anytime In History?
Investigating the popular claim that there are more slaves now than at any other point in history
It’s a claim that has become almost common knowledge, repeated by countless prominent media outlets such as the BBC, the Toronto Star, and the Guardian. The claim is featured prominently on the website of 50 for Freedom:
MYTH: RELATIVELY FEW PEOPLE ARE VICTIMS OF FORCED LABOUR
FACT: There are more people in slavery today than at any other time in history.
It’s a startling claim, one that has captivated and moved people around the world. Unfortunately, it’s also a claim resting on relatively little evidence.
While it likely goes without saying, it’s worth clarifying anyways: nothing in this article is intended to downplay the severity or brutality of modern slavery, nor to discredit the organizations that work against it. Of course, I agree with the unfortunate reality that many people worldwide are subject to forced labor. This article simply seeks to determine if the common claim that more slaves exist today than at any other point in history is accurate or not. Ultimately, the truth matters.
Lastly, if you only care for the conclusion, it’s summarized in a section at the bottom.
Finding The Origins Of The Claim
While the claim is now widely repeated across many media sites, the original source isn’t clear. Most of the earliest appearances of this claim in media reference it as coming from the website of Free The Slaves, an anti-slavery advocacy organization. The claim still appears on their website today, but they provide no details on the origins or methodology of the claim.
The earliest mention of the claim that I was able to find was contained in a February 2006 paper titled Testing a Theory of Modern Slavery by Kevin Bales. Bales is the founder and former president of Free The Slaves, and is currently a professor at the University of Nottingham (to be clear, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dr. Bales and the work he has done overall). Here…