Contemporary Slavery and Disposable People

Photo of child slaves

Teaching about slavery is not complete unless we clearly identify the institution of slavery with the contemporary problems of racism and slavery. Unfortunately, contemporary slavery is not only alive and well throughout the world, but it is also something that we as educators rarely discuss with our students. So, today we are going to spend a bit of time talking about slavery in the world today and how it is - just like the slavery of the pre-Civil War south - intimately tied to the world economy.

How the old slavery of Southern Plantation days differs from the new slavery today. The chart below shows the differences between these two systems.

Chart showing the differences of old and new slavery

Photo contrasting old and new slavery

How the old slavery and modern slavery are similar.


How we transitioned from the old slavery to the new slavery.

In the United States, slavery was technically ended with the passage of the 13th amendment. However, a type of economic slavery existed for almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War. To fully understand the widespread dimensions of this type of economic slavery, see the outstanding video, Slavery by Another Name at and or the equally insightful documentary Thirteenth which can be streamed via Netflix.

In other parts of the world, as well as in the United States, at least three factors arose in the late 20th Century that encouraged the transition from the old slavery to the new:

What contemporary experts say about the current conditions of the new slavery. While many people in the world today have unearthed the tragedy of contemporary slavery, one of the leading experts is Dr. Kevin Bales, Director of Free the Slaves in Washington, D.C. Chart of 10 facts about modern slaveryand Sociology Professor at the University of Surrey Roehampton in England. Not only has Bales committed himself to researching the current conditions of slavery for the past two decades, he has traveled around the world interviewing slaves and slaveholders. In his book, Disposable People which has gone through several editions since its first printing in 1999, he emphasizes several important facts about modern slavery.

  1. While is hard to determine just how many slaves there are in the world because we must rely upon victim reports, research and travels throughout the world estimate the number at 27 million. There are slaves in almost every country in the world, including the U.S.
  2. Slaves currently provide a vast, illegal workforce that supports the global economy upon which we all depend.   
  3. Because slavery is a highly profitable business, most contemporary slavery is possible because at all levels of government, officials turn a blind eye to the crime of slavery.  While law enforcers do not directly enslave people, they instead provide a system of protection that is based upon their own economic gain through bribery.
  4. There are three major types of slavery operating in today’s world – all of which are tied to economic gain: debt bondage or bonded labor; chattel slavery; and contract slavery.
  5. Today's slaves are disposable people.
  6. Since slavery feeds directly into the global economy, it is important to understand that slavery flows into our homes through the products we buy and the investments we make. As Bales tells us,

What we can do to combat slavery.

Most researchers and experts believe that we can end slavery in our lifetime. What a great message to give to our students. This is what is needed:

Slavery has not ended posterWe must all take a stand by getting educated, getting activated, participating in anti-slavery efforts, and spreading the word about contemporary slavery. So, how do we put our students to work on this. Below are two big steps to getting started:

  1. Help your students understand their slavery footprint by going to the website After running your students through the excellent introduction, "Slaves work for me?", each student can then take their own slavery footprint that helps them determine how their everyday lives, everyday consumer choices, and everyday uses of food contributes to slavery.
  2. Create a classroom assignment in which your students learn more about modern slavery. Use the list below to get them started. Once they are educated, have them develop ideas about how they as individuals and as a student community can combat slavery.