African slaves were sold in Asia

Background current

In 1998 UNESCO declared 23 August International Day of Remembrance and Abolition of the Slave Trade. While slavery is now prohibited by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are currently an estimated 21 million people in slavery-like jobs.

They were often used as cotton pickers: slaves brought from Africa to the United States via the transatlantic slave trade. (& copy picture-alliance)

Slavery and forced labor

Slavery is a relationship of domination in which people are viewed and treated as the property of others. This is to be distinguished from serfdom, in which the body lord has far-reaching powers of disposal over the serf, but does not have him or her. Debt bondage, on the other hand, is described as a relationship of dependency similar to slavery, the duration and nature of which is determined arbitrarily by the creditors. The debtor makes his labor available as security for a loan.

The European Court of Human Rights assumes that modern forms of slavery are no longer necessarily based on the fact that people are considered the property of others; however, the actual living conditions of those affected hardly differ from those of old forms of slavery.

Finally, there is the concept of forced labor. This can, but does not necessarily have to take place in slavery. Forced labor is when a person has to do work under penalty of punishment for which he or she has not freely chosen. The International Labor Organization (ILO) continues to classify human trafficking as forced labor because it is aimed at exploitation. According to the European Convention on Human Rights, only those in prison may be forced to work.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

With European colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade developed from the 16th century. In the so-called triangular trade, ships with goods drove to the coast of West Africa in order to exchange them for people. These were brought to America and sold there, families were torn apart at random. From there, ships drove back to Europe, loaded with products such as sugar, coffee or cotton that had been harvested or made by slave labor.

The displaced people, previously goldsmiths, farmers and traders by trade, were now considered the property of the European slave traders. During the week-long voyage to North and South America, they were mostly chained below deck; many died of disease or took their own lives. UNESCO estimates that in the transatlantic slave trade alone, an estimated 17 million people from Africa have been enslaved. Other figures assume 12 million people. Most were brought to Brazil.


Resistance to slavery is part of the history of slavery. There were countless rebellions on the slave ships, and in some cases enslaved people were able to capture ships and steer them back to Africa. Small-scale resistance also consisted of refusal to work or disobedience. Women played an important role in this because they had greater freedom of movement.

The most successful slave revolt took place in the French colony of Saint Domingue in the Caribbean and culminated in the establishment of an independent republic in 1804: Haiti. The UN day of commemoration of the slave trade and its abolition is based on the beginning of this uprising, August 23, 1791.

Abolition of Slavery and its Consequences

There were different reasons and motives for the ultimate abolition of slavery. In northern America it was mainly Christian people who campaigned for an end to slavery for religious reasons. Others argued that keeping slaves was not financially viable. In 1807, Great Britain initially banned the slave trade, before finally a law prohibiting slavery came into force there in 1833. The US declared slavery unconstitutional after the Civil War in 1865.

However, this was not detrimental to the wealth created by slavery: the trade structures that had arisen often remained in place and continued to be used. With the Slavery Agreement of the League of Nations of 1926 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the abolition of slavery was enshrined in international law as an international norm.

Today - forced labor and slavery-like work

The ILO estimates that almost 40 million people worldwide do forced labor (as of 2017). Often, poverty is one of the reasons that people get into such an employment relationship. Migrants without valid papers and illiterate people are particularly at risk. The ILO advises caution, however, when using the term "modern slavery" lightly to describe circumstances to which it does not legally apply.

Forced labor is expressed today in the form of forced prostitution, but it also takes place in agriculture, as housework, in mines and in construction. Although the percentage of people who have to do forced labor is highest in Central and Southeastern Europe as well as in the CIS countries, the largest number of forced labor victims can be found in Asia. For example, human trafficking and slavery are widespread in Thailand's fishing industry.

Around 5.5 million children around the world do forced labor in stone quarries, in the textile industry or as serfs in households. This also includes jobs similar to slavery, such as debt bondage. Child labor is not prohibited everywhere. In some countries their income is seen as necessary to ensure the survival of their families.

The nationwide coordination group against human trafficking active in Germany demands that victims of forced labor be protected by law and that perpetrators must be punished. The fight against poverty is also essential; the public and the authorities should also be made aware of the issue.

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