Human Slavery and Trafficking


Above: Gobal Estimates on Forced Labour. Copyright © International Labour Organization2012
Gobal Estimates on Forced Labour. Copyright © International Labour Organization 2012


Forced or compulsory labour is the modern face of slavery and includes practices such as deceptive recruiting, debt bondage, and trafficking.  These unethical labour practices enable people to be controlled, exploited and deprived of their innate dignity and freedom and are complex and entrenched problems that degrade our human family in a multitude of ways.  While the Catholic Church (particularly religious congregations) has long been working to end trafficking and slavery and alleviate the suffering caused by such exploitation, Pope Francis is renewing and reinvigorating the Church’s efforts. He has raised his voice against the growing ‘throw-away’ culture giving rise to slavery and trafficking.

Today, as in the past, slavery is rooted in a notion of the human person which allows him or her to be treated as an object. Whenever sin corrupts the human heart and distances us from our Creator and our neighbours, the latter are no longer regarded as beings of equal dignity, as brothers or sisters sharing a common humanity, but rather as objects. Whether by coercion or deception, or by physical or psychological duress, human persons created in the image and likeness of God are deprived of their freedom, sold and reduced to being the property of others. They are treated as means to an end.

Pope Francis, World Day of Peace Message 2015.


Above: Forced Labour generates annual profits of US$150 billion. Copyright © International Labour Organization 2014.
Copyright © International Labour Organization 2014.


The innate dignity of each and every person and our shared equality as brothers and sisters in Christ are principles we can easily recognize as Catholics. Yet, when we participate in a culture or economy that makes people into objects or commodities to be used and thrown away, we are allowing people’s innate dignity to be dismissed in favour of a monetary value.  This tendency is compounded by society’s preoccupation with money, financial gain and profit maximisation.  The downside to this skewed culture is the consequent poverty, underdevelopment and exclusion that is prevalent globally.  The desperate situation of people in extreme poverty, particularly where they may be lacking in education, makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Corrupt people facilitate and condone the exploitation of others and deception and violence (or the threat of violence) enforces compliance with those who exploit.

Various forms of exploitation or subjugation are of concern.  Countries may fail to comply with international norms or standards regarding the treatment of labour in industries such as agriculture, mining or manufacture or otherwise poorly protect workers in practice.  For example, relevant laws may exist but they may not be effectively enforced.  Migrants may be inhumanely detained or abused or migrant workers (as distinct from citizens of a country) may live or work in degrading conditions.  Prostitution, sex-slavery and forced marriage is also of grave concern.  People may be forced into other illegal activities, such as: the sale of organs; recruitment as soldiers or otherwise used for the purposes of militia; thieving or begging; the sale of children; production, distribution or sale of illegal items.   In addition, such exploitation can take place as a result of a process of trafficking victims.  Traffickers may recruit or procure, harbour or transport people, either forcing, coercing or defrauding them so they travel to a different location where they are exploited once they arrive at their destination.

Trauma and loss are likely suffered as a result of such exploitation and this suffering may deleteriously impact victims long after the experience of slavery or trafficking has ceased.  It may also impact the lives of their families and, particularly their children, contributing to a tragic intergenerational spiral of degradation.

Our faith requires us to intervene, to take steps in favour of those who are currently exploited and to prevent others from entering slavery or being trafficked.

We ought to recognize that we are facing a global phenomenon which exceeds the competence of any one community or country. In order to eliminate it, we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself. For this reason I urgently appeal to all men and women of good will … not to become accomplices to this evil, not to turn away from the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, who are deprived of their freedom and dignity.

The globalization of indifference, which today burdens the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters, requires all of us to forge a new worldwide solidarity and fraternity capable of giving them new hope and helping them to advance with courage amid the problems of our time and the new horizons which they disclose and which God places in our hands.

(Pope Francis, World Peace Day Message 2015).


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