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Steve Contorno
By Steve Contorno March 3, 2014

Director Steve McQueen dedicated his Oscar to the 21 million people still in slavery

The 86th Academy Awards featured the expected red-carpet pageantry, a few surprise winners, a "selfie" that went viral and a mid-show pizza party, courtesy of host Ellen Degeneres.

But it wasn’t until the end of the three-and-a-half hour affair that viewers finally learned this year’s pick for best picture. The award went to 12 Years a Slave, the powerful true story of a black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South during the mid-1800s.

In accepting the award, director Steve McQueen delivered an emotional tribute.

"Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup," McQueen said. "I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today."

Because we’re PunditFact, we can’t even watch the Oscars without our ears perking up at such a statistic, especially when millions of people potentially heard it, too. So we decided to put McQueen’s claim on the Truth-O-Meter.

Modern slavery is often referred to today as "forced labor" or sometimes "trafficking in persons." It’s not as easily defined as the slave trade of the antebellum American South, nor is it simple to identify victims.

The United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines trafficking in persons two ways. There is sex trafficking "in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age." Then there’s a more general category: "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery."

There are many different examples of modern slavery worldwide. The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, looks for 11 indicators to identify forced labor:

Estimates on modern slavery vary because victims are difficult to identify and do not often come forward.

The United Nation’s International Labor Organization believes the best way to get statistics on slavery is through national surveys, but so far "only a handful of countries have undertaken special surveys on this topic." As a result "the practice is extremely difficult to research and quantify as it is most often hidden and out-of-sight of law enforcement."

Because of this, only 46,570 victims were formally documented by law enforcement agencies internationally in 2012, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Still, overall estimates exist.

The International Labor Organization estimated in June 2012 that 20.9 million individuals were in forced labor. This included 15.4 million adults and 5.5 million children. About 55 percent are women or girls.

By far, the most common purveyor of forced labor is in Asia, where 11.7 million are in slave-like conditions. Africa is second at 3.7 million.

Labor exploitation is most common worldwide with 14.2 million forced laborers, while 4.5 million are exploited for sex. State-enforced labor entraps 2.2 million, the group estimated.

The organization has changed how it calculates the figure. As recently as 2005, the estimate for forced laborers was much smaller, at 12 million people, so identifying trends is not possible using their data.

Other organizations, however, have estimated that the figure is much higher. Luis CdeBaca, the Ambassador-at-Large in the Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, testified to Congress in 2013 that there were "up to 27 million people living in slavery." A State Department spokesman told us that language was agreed to after consulting with industry experts.

The Walk Free Foundation, an international organization committed to ending modern slavery, estimates the figure at between 28.3 million and 31.3 million in its Global Slavery Index.

We reached out to McQueen’s representation to see if they could provide a source for his claim. If we hear back, we’ll update the post.

Our ruling

In his acceptance speech, McQueen said he dedicated his Oscar to the "21 million people who still suffer slavery today." That figure is based on a 2012 estimate from the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency. Estimates vary across organizations, and a true headcount is nearly impossible to predict with any certainty. Still, McQueen cited the estimate of the international community’s most reliable source. We rate his statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

The Independent, "12 Years A Slave: Brad Pitt and Steve McQueen’s Best Picture Oscars acceptance speech in full," March 3, 2014

Email interview with Alec Gerlach, spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, March 3, 2014

Email interview with Brandon Bouchard, spokesman for the Polaris Project, March 3, 2014

U.S. Department of State, "Trafficking in Persons Report 2013," June 2013

Walk Free Foundation, Global Slavery Index, accessed March 3, 2014

Testimony of Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-Large, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons to the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, June 19, 2013

CNN, The CNN Freedom Project: Ending Modern-Day Slavery, accessed March 3, 2014

International Labor Organization, "Behind the figures: Faces of forced labour," June 1, 2012

International Labor Organization, "ILO 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour," June 1, 2012

International Labor Organization, "ILO Indicators of Forced Labour," accessed March 3, 2014

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Director Steve McQueen dedicated his Oscar to the 21 million people still in slavery

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