What Is Child Slavery?

The number of children forced into slavery is difficult to estimate.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 19 July 2014
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Child slavery is the treatment of children as property and the use of those children in forced labor. Many nations, as well as the international community, have laws specifically barring slavery of people of all ages and cracking down on human trafficking, forced labor, and child labor, even if the people involved are not specifically chattel slaves. The number of children in slavery around the world is difficult to estimate.

True chattel slavery, where people buy and sell human beings directly and regard them as their property, is relatively unusual. There are, however, a number of activities that come very close to chattel slavery, including forced labor, peonage, and bondage. Child slavery is of particular concern, as it can sometimes be difficult to identify, and children often do not have access to methods for reporting slavery or abusive working conditions.

This problem is particularly common in developing nations, where parents may sell children into slavery to provide for the rest of the family or because they cannot afford to keep their children. In some regions, parents themselves are forced laborers or slaves, and the people who control their labor may take and sell their children. Child slavery can involve trafficking in children for domestic and agricultural servitude, as well as garment production and other manufacturing activities. Some child slaves work in the sex trade.


In situations where child slaves are taken across borders, law enforcement agencies sometimes have an opportunity to intervene. A number of nations have anti-trafficking task forces that monitor movement of people across the border and step in if they suspect a group of people may be involved in trafficking. Domestic child slavery is more difficult to trace. While labor inspectors can tour workplaces and identify child workers or conditions of concern, companies may use bribes to encourage people to look the other way or to get warnings when an inspection is planned so they can hide their illegal work force.

The use of child slavery in manufacturing is a cause for concern with some multinational companies, as they may contract services out and count on their subcontractors to have fair, legal working conditions. Exposes on the use of child slavery tend to attract copious negative attention for the companies responsible for selling products made with slave labor. Some companies and industries have campaigns to address this issue; in the chocolate industry, for example, where the use of child slaves has been a historic topic of concern, some companies apply for slave-free certification so they can inform consumers their products were made humanely.


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