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Why Slavery?

A series of ground breaking documentaries uncovering modern slavery. 

About the programme

A series of ground breaking documentary films uncover the lives of men, women and children living as modern slaves in all corners of the world. Whether it is the deeply flawed Kafala System in the Middle East or the prolific number of children bought and sold in India, WHY SLAVERY? shines a light on the millions of lives lived in the shadow of enslavement.

Read more about the collection on the BBC's programmes page or find out more about modern day slavery below. 

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

Copyright: Bernadett Tuza-Ritter/Eclipse Film

Modern slavery

Learn more about modern slavery around the world.

A man's silhouette looking out of a window

Everyday encounters with slavery

What forms can modern slavery take? How do we encounter it in our daily lives and if we do, what should we do about it?

How do we encounter slavery in our daily lives?  Most ‘good’ people are vehemently against it and would never dream of contributing to it in any way.  While there has been more attention on modern slavery in recent years, it is something that happens elsewhere far away and other people are complicit and benefiting from it.  And yet, our unintentional encounters with modern slavery are surprisingly frequent.  While shocked and outraged that it exists, and the estimates are that over 40 million people globally are in different forms of slavery, we cannot deny that we are connected to it.  Within the UK, there are an estimated 11,700 people living as slaves (Global Slavery Index, 2016). 

A young woman can be seen through a window. Her hand is rested on the glass, partially obscuring her face, and she appears to be crying.

Slavery can take many forms, such as:

  • Forced labour, which is work that people do against their will;
  • Bonded slavery, where people borrow money and if they don’t repay it, they must work it off;
  • Sexual slavery, where young girls and boys, and adults are lured by the promise of good jobs;
  • Chattel slavery, where people are the property of owners who buy and sell them.

The similarities amongst all of these is that slavery generally originates in places where there is poverty – where people who live in poverty have few prospects and are the most vulnerable.  They frequently end up in situations where their freedom is curtailed and others profit from their work. 


Companies with a global turnover of £36 million or more who do business in the UK must annually disclose the steps they are taking to address slavery in their business and in their supply chains.

But slavery is not just something that happens ‘over there’.  Slavery also plays part in our everyday lives, sometimes with people being aware of it, but frequently not.  In 2015, the UK government passed the Modern Slavery Act which criminalised slavery and human trafficking.  Unfortunately, for many, the Act does not go far enough in dealing with the root causes of slavery.  There have also been additional criticisms that frequently say it is those who are enslaved who are also punished by this criminally focused Act, as they are deported back to their poverty and treated as criminals themselves.  Having said that, the UK government – like some other governments such as the Netherlands, the United States, Sweden, Australia, and Germany – have acknowledged the presence of slavery and human trafficking, both criminalising it as well as placing various measures to mitigate it.  Within the UK, the Modern Slavery Act has meant that the topic of modern slavery has entered public discourses.  Additionally, while much of this Act does not affect corporations, provision 54 of the Act calls for corporate transparency in supply chains.  Thus, companies with a global turnover of £36 million or more who do business in the UK must annually disclose the steps they are taking to address slavery in their business and in their supply chains.


A woman gets her nails painted

Photo by Kris Atomic on Unsplash

In 2018 in the UK, the first three people were sentenced under the Modern Slavery Act, two of whom were jailed for their role in trafficking Vietnamese girls to work in the UK’s nail bar industry.

While it is great that some countries have put in place legislation such as the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, this neither means that the problem of slavery is solved, nor does it mean that we can relinquish our responsibilities to do something about it.  We encounter slavery on a regular basis.  For example, in 2018 in the UK, the first three people were sentenced under the Modern Slavery Act, two of whom were jailed for their role in trafficking Vietnamese girls to work in the UK’s nail bar industry.  

Whether it is in nail bars, or employing domestic workers who have been brought here under false pretences’, or purchasing clothing from countries with appalling labour practices where people are working in slave conditions, our involvement with various forms of slavery is frequently not far away. But it is instinctual to not acknowledge that which causes us discomfort. In his classic study of both the personal and political ways in which uncomfortable realities are avoided and evaded, Stanley Cohen, the late and eminent sociologist, described this as the process of ‘knowing and not knowing’.  He argued that denial can exist at many levels: the individual, the organisational or the societal levels.  With all its flaws, progressive (while not perfect) legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act, are a means to ‘acknowledge’ the issue of slavery and to bring it home. 


So, if we suspect slavery, what do we do?  We can report suspected cases of slavery through apps like Unseen .  The app explains some of the characteristics of people living in slavery and it makes it straight forward to report suspected slavery situations.  

An additional action is that we can ask questions of the origins of products and stop buying them if they are produced by people in conditions of labour slavery.  We can also lobby our own members of parliament to ensure that anti-slavery legislation is not being used as means of punishing those in slavery conditions by criminalising them, but is used to punish those benefiting from slavery.   And finally, we can think beyond the slavery itself, and critically ask questions as to why slavery exists – what are the root causes of this slavery, which is typically poverty – and how we can link with others to try to eliminate these situations of poverty and inequality that are the breeding grounds for slavery. 


A woman struck by a rainbow

LGBTQI+ Survivors of Trafficking

Explore the issues surrounding supporting survivors of trafficking, particularly those who identify as LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and all inclusive). 

During the past three decades we are said to have witnessed the demise of a victim support service model commonly referred to as the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. Essentially, this model presumed that all victims of crime have some overarching commonalities and, therefore, one inflexible approach could work for all. Its successor has been founded upon the premise that victims’ needs vary substantially from community to community, based on factors such as demographics and the offence in question. This so-called ‘flexible’ model focuses on identifying individual needs that are connected to the impact of crime. Consequently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, this crucial shift from ‘one-size-fits-all’ to ‘flexible’ has stimulated a great deal of policy interest on explicating the policy ramifications for anti-trafficking.

A photograph of a woman walking away from the camera, who we can only see in silhouette

Photo by Tim Tebow Foundation on Unsplash

Staking its claim as the most influential champion of the ‘flexible’ anti-trafficking model, since 2001 the annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP report), issued by the US Department of State, has become both a standard source of transnational information pertaining to trends in human trafficking and a common feature of numerous related reports that exercise global political pressure. According to TIP reports, victim assistance options are most effective when they are flexible and adaptive, and least effective when long-term assistance involves telling a ‘victim what he or she must do with his or her life’. Traces of the flexible model’s underlying current have been found throughout these reports as an emerging swell of evidence attests to equating recovery from victimisation with reaching individual goals. For instance, one of the reports sees victim support as providing ‘the help requested to help each individual reach personal goals’ .


The TIP 2015 report explicitly highlights the increased vulnerability of LGBTQI+ people from Central America, Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Africa and South Africa, El Salvador, Honduras, Asia, and Syria

Specifically, most recent TIP reports (from 2014 onward) have stimulated a great deal of policy and scholarly interest about victims of ‘special interest’. Based on this ‘special interest’ discourse, trafficking victimisation does not take place in a vacuum but it is connected to structural conditions, such as discrimination, poverty, and inequality. For instance, the TIP 2015 report explicitly highlights the increased vulnerability of LGBTQI+ people from Central America, Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Africa and South Africa, El Salvador, Honduras, Asia, and Syria, who fall victims to ‘sex trafficking and forced labor’. These LGBTQI+ victims are ‘particularly vulnerable to traffickers who prey on the desperation of those who wish to escape social alienation and maltreatment ’. Concluding with recommendations for new partnerships between LGBTQI+ organizations and law enforcement officials, the reports seek to rectify through ‘criminalization and service cooperation’ existing biases and discrimination on behalf of officials and service providers.


A black and white picture taken at a high angle of some steps. Lots of people are ascending and descending, but details are blurry so we can't see their faces.
...there is still a gap between legal reform and addressing structural conditions.

TIP report’s turn to LGBTQI+ victims of human trafficking was a breakthrough, but it is flawed. Legal critics have claimed it abuses ‘due process’ by acting as a court of law imposing a vulnerability based ‘rating’ system on countries. They also impose a hierarchy of victimhood linked to standards of ‘exceptionality’ on victims or groups of victims based on perceived vulnerabilities. For instance, LGBTQI+ people are considered ‘particularly vulnerable’ among other rather heterogeneous groups varying from ‘indigenous persons’, ‘Romani victims’, and ‘suicide bombers’. While discursively resisting an inflexible approach, it does impose a competing and now arguably dominant model as the only valid anti-trafficking model. It is also sometimes unclear in these cases who is acting on behalf of whom, and essentially how diplomacy and justice can coexist. Finally, implicit in these discussions is the submission of evidence from international policy publications, legislative debates, and independent research suggesting that LGBTQI+ victims are not specifically covered by many anti-trafficking protections. While legal reform would be a useful recommendation, there is still a gap between legal reform and addressing structural conditions. Lastly, with most recommendations resting upon criminalisation measures, the surfacing of LGBTQI+ survivors of trafficking is the discursive place where impossible paths meet again.

To find out more about human trafficking, criminology, and the policy discussions in this field, please visit OU Qualifications 'MA in Crime and Justice' and 'BA (Hons) Criminology' or Modules 'Crime and global justice' and 'Understanding criminology


Female head from behind in black and white

Trafficking in human beings: myths and realities

We explore some of the most common myths around human trafficking and also look closer at some of the harsh realities. 

Modern slavery

It is estimated that 40.3 million people  live in modern slavery worldwide

92 years ago, the Slavery Convention 1926  became the first international law treaty to ban slavery. It served as a foundation for the prevention and suppression of the slave trade. Over 200 years ago, in 1807, the slave trade became prohibited in the UK, with complete abolition of slavery following in 1833. However, slavery is not a thing of the past- as the chilling pictures of slave markets in Libya  remind us, it continues to exist in the present day.

It is estimated that 40.3 million people  live in modern slavery worldwide. This includes persons who are forced to work  against their will, enslaved children , persons who are trapped in debt bondage , forced to marry (including child marriage ) and, last but not least, victims of human trafficking. Trafficking in human beings (THB) too is a form of modern slavery and, having significantly increased since 1900s, is happening worldwide.


What is THB

Trafficking is a criminal act which also has a strong human rights dimension. It involves the recruitment of the victim and their transportation to another state or within the same state for the purposes of exploitation. 

In international law, trafficking is defined in the Article 3 (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons  (also known as Palermo Protocol) which accompanies the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime 2000 . So far, 173 states became parties to the Protocol, which means that they accept to be bound by the legal provisions outlined in the Protocol.

Legally, the crime of trafficking involves three elements:

  • THE ACT of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring or receiving a person,
  • By THE MEANS of, for example, coercion, deception, use of force or abuse of vulnerability or power,
  • For THE PURPOSE of exploitation. This may include forced labour, sexual exploitation, prostitution, removal of organs and slavery or practices similar to slavery.

A woman with her hands pressed against the sides of her head. All of her facial features have been edited away, so she appears faceless.

Trafficking involves a number of actors, all of whom play a role in committing the crime. The process starts with recruitment which frequently involves deception, e.g. by pretending that jobs and visas will be arranged by a travel agency. Subsequently, transport of the victims to the destination – either within a country or across borders – takes place, involving further actors who provide accommodation and transportation. They may also falsify travel ID documents and visas which are highly likely to be confiscated and destroyed by the traffickers upon victims reaching their destination. Finally, in the final stage of the process there are those who exploit the victims of trafficking and benefit financially from their exploitation, for example, by forcing victims into prostitution, begging or harvesting their organs.  

The profile of perpetrators is also quite complex and may range from trafficking/criminal gangs to public officials, members of a police force, family and friends and even peacekeepers, as portrayed in Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower  (based on Kathryn Bolkovac’s  book of the same title).


Myths about trafficking

Although the 2016 study of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime suggests that women and girls amounted to 71% of THB victims , men and boys are also trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation (4%), forced labour (63%), and organ removal (82%) .

There are many misconceptions about THB, especially regarding the perception of victims. Very often, it is assumed that victims of trafficking are only women and that they are trafficked exclusively for sexual exploitation. Although the 2016 study of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime suggests that women and girls amounted to 71% of THB victims , men and boys are also trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation (4%), forced labour (63%), and organ removal (82%) .

Another myth is that trafficking happens only in Eastern Europe or in poor and third world countries, and that Western countries are not facing this problem. Whilst a significant number of victims get trafficked from Eastern countries to the West, trafficking is prevalent within many Western countries, including the UK.

Finally, victims are often perceived to have consented to being trafficked. This is hugely incorrect and, legally, makes an important distinction between trafficking and smuggling: in case of the latter, individuals give their full consent to being illegally transported across borders for financial, or other, benefit.

In contrast, a trafficked person cannot give real consent to the be trafficked. At the time of giving consent, trafficking victims very often do not know the true and full extent of what they are consenting to. For instance, a victim of trafficking may have consented to working abroad in an agricultural job and believed that they will be able to keep their earnings. However, upon arrival in the country of destination, the person might have their documents confiscated by the traffickers and be forced to carry out agricultural labour (or subjected to other form of exploitation) for little or no money. 


"trafficking in human beings, by its very nature and aim of exploitation, is based on the exercise of powers attaching to the right of ownership. It treats human beings as commodities to be bought and sold and put to forced labour, often for little or no payment (…). It involves the use of violence and threats against victims, who live and work under poor conditions"

Article 1 of the Slavery Convention defines slavery as ‘the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the rights of ownership are exercised’. Although trafficking victims are not technically (or legally) owned by their traffickers, in reality the traffickers exercise powers equivalent to ownership over their victims. The European Court of Human Rights confirmed the close link between trafficking and slavery in a landmark judgement in Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia  in 2010:

"trafficking in human beings, by its very nature and aim of exploitation, is based on the exercise of powers attaching to the right of ownership. It treats human beings as commodities to be bought and sold and put to forced labour, often for little or no payment (…). It involves the use of violence and threats against victims, who live and work under poor conditions"

Although much has changed in the past few years - both at European and domestic levels –  in terms of legal advances aimed at combatting trafficking, there is still long way to go in bringing justice to the victims as well as punishing perpetrators. Over 8 years on since the decision in Rantsev, the jurisprudence on trafficking is growing with many more cases being heard before domestic as well as human rights courts, serving as a reminder of the scale of trafficking as well as its severe impact on the victims. Finally, although news stories featuring sexual slavery of Yazidi women  or trafficked brides  may suggest that modern slavery happens far away from our everyday lives – it is in fact highly likely that victims of trafficking are closer to us, as well as much more vulnerable, than we think.  


Meet the experts...

Dr Avi Boukli, Lecturer in Criminology, The Open University
Dr Avi Boukli, School of Social Sciences & Global StudiesLecturer in CriminologyVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Avi Boukli, Lecturer in Criminology, The Open University
Dr Avi Boukli, School of Social Sciences & Global StudiesLecturer in Criminology

Avi has produced and taught a very large number of modules across a range of topics including Property Law, Criminal Law, Sociology, Criminology, Victimology and Criminal Justice. Avi is currently the module chair of 'Crime and Global Justice' (MA in Crime and Justice). Their research is concerned with imaginary penalities, social harm, and social justice and with some broader questions to do with the interface between structural inequalities, crime, gender, sexuality, and zemia.

In previous years, their research has engaged with criminalization, security and human rights informed by empirical work in the context of sex trafficking, exploring the application of the concept “imaginary penalities”.

Professor Helen Yanacopulos, The Open University
Professor Helen YanacopulosVisiting Professor, School of Social Sciences & Global StudiesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Professor Helen Yanacopulos, The Open University
Professor Helen YanacopulosVisiting Professor, School of Social Sciences & Global Studies

Helen has worked on a wide range of modules at The Open University, including topics such as Third World Development, Environment and Society, International Development, Development Context and Practice and Conflict and Development. Helen’s research interests bridge the fields of International Politics and International Development and are focused on explanations of how non-state actors influence poverty and inequality.  Specifically, she examines social justice focused and digitally enabled networks of NGOs, social movements and civil society involved in:  political mobilisation and political action; global justice networks; transnational governance; and the construction and representation of International Development.

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