Slavery is still alive and well around the world, with around 46 million people being forcibly exploited every day, according to a global watchdog group.

“It’s true that Americans have a hard time imagining slavery that isn’t like an Alabama plantation, but remember that slavery has been around since the very beginning of human history, in many many forms,” Global Slavery Index co-author and professor of contemporary slavery Kevin Bales said this week in a Reddit AMA. “It never stopped, even when it was made illegal, in the U.S. or anywhere else.”

The Global Slavery Index estimates the prevalence of slavery based on more than 50,000 interviews in 53 different languages. If there’s one positive takeaway from the study, it’s that the relative number of people in slavery is at an all-time low. Yet perhaps most shocking is the simple fact that there are 46 million slaves in the world, generating $150 billion in criminal profits.

Bales tells Inverse that the definition of slavery is pretty simple: “It’s always about one person completely controlling another person — and using violence to maintain control — with the ultimate aim of exploitation in some way.” Slavery includes not only forced labor but also human trafficking, many sex workers, and various kinds of exploitative relationships.

Some kinds of slavery are found in developed countries, even the U.S., which has an estimated 58,000 slaves. But other countries are much worse, with 58 percent of all slaves living in only five countries. We highlight the worst offenders, and what it’s like there, below.

Indian children work near their parents at a construction project in front of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on January 30, 2010, in New Delhi, India.
Indian children work near their parents at a construction project in front of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on January 30, 2010, in New Delhi, India.

1. India — 18,354,700 Slaves

Despite tremendous economic growth in recent years, India struggles to manage a swelling population of over 1.3 billion people competing for scarce resources. The 18 million slaves in India — a staggeringly large number by all accounts — come almost entirely from the lowest parts of India’s caste system. “Groups of people are systematically denied access to just about everything,” Bales explained to Inverse. “There are a lot of people that live below the caste line who can’t drink out of water fountains or even go to school.”

In particular, collateral debt bondage — described as inherited slavery — is nothing short of an epidemic, especially among the classes of people who have no rights to begin with. People are born into servitude for a supposed debt that is several generations old in some cases; it’s like being forced into slavery because your great-grandfather owed too much money to someone.

2. China — 3,388,400 Slaves

The disparity in work available to rural and urban populations consistently leads to surges of migrant workers, who are statistically susceptible to becoming victims of human trafficking. The index explains that as many as 58 million “‘left behind children’” are abandoned by migrant parent workers, and, though estimates vary wildly, many of those children are subjected to forced begging, illegal adoption, and even sex slavery.

According to Bales, even more rampant than the migrant worker crisis is the overlap of China’s prison and factory systems, which accounts for a significant portion of its slave labor, as prisoners are thrust into the system without due process.

“Falun Gong, for instance, is targeted,” Bales says. “In many cases, there might not even be an arrest record.” And sentences last decades, not months.

A young Pakistani boy lays bricks.
A young Pakistani boy lays bricks.

3. Pakistan — 2,134,900 Slaves

Bonded servitude still runs rampant in Pakistan today, and the government does little to enforce the Bonded Labor Act it passed in 1992 that abolished indentured service and the peshgi system, a term that roughly means bonded money that’s used to describe the advance loan given to bonded laborers before their service. In some cases, even children are virtually sold off in this fashion.

4. Bangladesh — 1,531,300 Slaves

Poverty, natural disasters, and widespread corruption make the social climate of Bangladesh dangerous for modern slavery. Though forced marriage is a significant problem there, the vast majority of its estimated slaves are forced into hard labor in areas like drug production or farming.

Data behind forced marriages is especially startling: According to Human Rights Watch, 29 percent of girls under 15 are married along with 2 percent of girls under the age of 11. All in all, these forced marriages make up an estimated 20 percent of the people enslaved in Bangladesh, and 25 percent are forced into prostitution.

Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth largest producer of cotton, with much of it being picked by state-sanctioned, forced slave labor.
Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth largest producer of cotton, with much of it being picked by state-sanctioned, forced slave labor.

5. Uzbekistan — 1,236,600 Slaves

Among all modern nations, Uzbekistan has the second-highest percentage of its population enslaved, at almost 4 percent. Many of its citizens are forced into state-sanctioned manual labor on an annual basis for cotton harvest. Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth largest producer of cotton.

6. North Korea — 1,100,000 Slaves

No doubt due in large part to it being a communist dictatorship, North Korea has the single highest percentage of slaves in its population at about 4.4 percent. North Korea remains very secretive, but evidence suggests the existence of government-sanctioned forced labor, particularly in prison labor camps. Meanwhile, the women of North Korea are often compelled into forced marriages or commercial sexual exploitation in neighboring countries. An important distinction is that a larger number of North Korea’s population is deliberately enslaved by the state. As such, in an international ranking of each nation’s governmental response to slavery, North Korea was the single worst offender.

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7. Russia — 1,048,500 Slaves

8. Nigeria — 875,500 Slaves

9. Democratic Republic of Congo — 873,100 Slaves

10. Indonesia — 736,100 Slaves

11. Egypt — 572,900 Slaves

12. Myanmar — 515,100 Slaves

13. Iran — 495,300 Slaves

14. Turkey — 480,300 Slaves

15. Sudan — 454,700 Slaves

16. Thailand — 425,500 Slaves

17. Ethiopia — 425,500 Slaves

18. Iraq — 403,800 Slaves

19. Philippines — 401,000 Slaves

20. Mexico — 376,800 Slaves


71. Ecuador — 65,300 Slaves

72. United States — 57,700 Slaves

In proportion to the U.S. population, this number is much lower than most countries on the list, yet it’s shocking still. In his AMA, Bales pointed to slavery in “agriculture, forced commercial sexual exploitation, domestics who are enslaved, and on and on.” When commenters pointed to America’s extremely high prison population, he said that prisoners didn’t count as slaves in the study but that America’s prison system “could be edging rapidly into a form of state enslavement.”

73. Central African Republic — 55,400 Slaves


Here’s a map showing the density of slavery in countries worldwide, with darker-shaded nations having the highest percentage of slaves within the populations.

The highest concentration of slavery is in Africa and Southern Asia.
The highest concentration of slavery is in Africa and Southern Asia.
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For more in-depth information, visit the Global Slavery Index.

Photos via Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images, Associated Press, Simon Buxton/Anti-Slavery International, Global Slavery Index (1, 2)