The Rhetoric of Slavery in the 21st Century

AuthorPaul McDermott - Ciara Herlihy - and Paul Carey
[2019] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 3(2)
Authors: Mr Justice Paul McDermott, Ciara Herlihy, and Paul Carey
Today, it is estimated as many as 27 million people around the world are
victims of modern slavery, what we sometimes call trafficking in persons...I
think labelling this for what it is, slavery, has brought it to another
dimension...When I first used to talk about [trafficking] all those years ago,
I think for a while people wondered whether I was talking about road safety
- what we needed to do to improve transportation systems. But slavery,
there is no mistaking what it is, what it means, what it does.
- Hillary Clinton
Few words are as evocative and as emotive as slavery. At first thought, the word tends to
conjure images of despairing people shackled on transatlantic ships, or performing back-
breaking work in the heat of the American Deep South. It is a subject matter that has
dominated Hollywood pictures and best seller lists in recent times, and many developed
countries, most notably the United States, are still coming to terms with their involvement
in the brutal practice of slavery.
Slavery of the past is a recurring theme in today’s media:
politicians vying for the democratic nomination in the US regularly call for reparations for
the descendants of slaves,
and many countries and institutions have ordered inquiries into
how they exploited slave labour for economic or other gain.
Slavery is recognised as a
crime against humanity of the highest order, and traditional slavery has today been
abolished in every country in the world, although it was not until 2007 that Mauritania
finally outlawed slavery, making it the last country in the world to do so.
In many ways,
the slavery narrative seems confined to the darkest eras of world history.
However, the language of slavery is increasingly being used to describe the plight of
exploited people across the world today. Research supports the surprising fact that there
are more people enslaved today than at any other time in history.
It has been calculated
that approximately 13 million people were captured and sold as slaves between the 15th and
19th Centuries; this stands in contrast to the International Labour Organisation’s most
recent estimate that today there are more than 40.3 million people currently living in some
form of modern slavery.
Modern slavery takes many forms and covers many industries.
‘Release of the 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report’ (US Department of State, 19 June 2012), -> accessed 25 August 2019.
Ana Lucia Araujo, Shadows of the Slave Past: Memory, Heritage and Slavery (Routledge 2014).
Bhaskar Sunkara, ‘To fight racism, we need to think beyond reparation’ (The Guardian, 28 March 2019)
accessed 25
August 2019.
See, for example, Sally Weale, ‘Cambridge university to study how it profited from colonial slavery’ (The Guardian, 30
April 2019) it-profited-
colonial-slavery> accessed 25 August 2019.
Siddharth Kara, Modern Slavery: A Global Perspective (Columbia University Press 2017) 7.
Patterson & Zhuo however, refute this contention; see article Orlando Patterson & Xiaolin Zhuo, ‘Modern Trafficking,
Slavery and Other Forms of Servitude’ (2018) 44 Annual Review of Sociology 407, 409.
‘Global Findings’ (Global Slavery Index 2018)>
accessed 25 August 2019.
[2019] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 3(2)
Slavery in the 21st Century is often divided into subcategories, such as sex trafficking,
labour trafficking, organ trafficking, debt bondage, forced marriage and descent-based (or
hereditary) slavery. Modern slavery has been referred to as having its roots in social and
economic marginalization, and driven by economic factors’, while being ‘pervasive, hidden
and all too often accepted.
Cockayne and co note that the central characteristic of
slavery is the exercise by one person over another of powers attaching to the right of
ownership’, with ‘chattel slaves’ being owned entirely by their slave-masters, their legal
personhood entirely commodified.8 Chattel slavery is so named as slaves were treated by
their owners as mere possessions which they could sell or transfer to others. Thus for
several centuries the property paradigm was used to understand the slavemaster
relationship in law.
In the modern context, it has been observed that the circumstances are crucial in order to
identify whether the person is enslaved, such as the restriction on the person’s freedom of
movement, the control of the individual’s personal belongings, and the relationship
between the parties, and threats of violence are often involved.
Modern slavery is in part
driven by a demand for cheap labour:
High labour supply in some economies encourages a view of labour as
‘disposable’, leading some employers to think that investment in human
capital is unnecessary, encouraging coercion and exploitation. Transnational
companies rely on the disarticulation of the supply chain to insulate
consumers, and themselves, from the role of slavery in the production of
consumer goods.... Modern slavery is thought to generate some $150 billion
annually in profits to those relying upon it. Moreover, as poor and
marginalized communities in developing countries with growing labour
forces are integrated into global markets, the price of slaves may actually be
That mass exploitation of vulnerable people exists in every corner of the globe today is
disputed by few. From a situation in the 1980s where few non-experts were aware that
forms of slavery still exist, we have moved on to a stage where most accept that slavery is a
pressing global problem. The language and terminology appropriate for this crisis is,
however, a topic of much debate. Organisations such as Anti-Slavery International and
Free the Slaves view slavery as an overarching concept within which subcategories can be
identified. Some view the use of the term slavery merely as a rhetorical addendum to
emphasise the severity of other crimes, such as human trafficking, rather than as an
independent category. Others entirely reject the use of the term slavery in a 21st Century
context, except perhaps where it relates to those situations where traditional or chattel
slavery is still on-going. However, while jurists and scholars go to great lengths to analyse
the use of language, the media and some activists are rarely concerned with legal
distinctions when using the term ‘modern slavery. This paper sets out to explore the
tension between the modern concept of slavery and its traditional definitions. It will first
briefly consider slavery throughout the human experience and how traditional slavery
differs from how it exists today. It will then look at the language used in international and
James Cockayne, Nick Grono, Kari Panaccione, ‘Introduction to Special Issue Slavery and the Limits of International
Criminal Justice’ (2016) 14 (2) Journal of International Criminal Justice 253.
Davis Weissbrodt and Anti-Slavery International, ‘Abolishing Slavery and its Contemporary Forms’ (HR/PUB/02/4,
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
2002) accessed 25 August 2019, 7.
Cockayne (n 8).

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