Contemporary Slavery

Note, links in red are especially disturbing. Their violent and sexual content is not suitable for children.

Chattel slavery in the trans-Atlantic slave trade may be the most familiar instance of slavery to many people in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, but it is far from being the only one. Ancient empires on each continent used slaves, including empires of indigenous peoples (

But today, there are more people enslaved, an estimated 21-46 million, than in any other era.

The first UN convention against slavery, passed in 1926, addresses chattel, or ownership, slavery ( However, since then a number of other forms of slavery have been identified by the UN, NGOs, and other governments. One UK-based anti-slavery activism group defines 8 forms of contemporary slavery (

If slavery takes different forms, then it is worth considering how it should be defined and what its causes are. Students in this course should consider in particular how power is at work in slavery, and specifically what meanings and forms of power are relevant to slavery.

The anthropologist David Graeber (2011) argues that slavery originated as a form of debt, such that a person might sell her own labor, or sell himself, his wife or children into slavery to work off something owed to another person. Graeber (2011, p. 146) argues that slaves are “people stolen from a community that made them what they are”—such that a slave has no relationships to anyone but his or her owner, and is therefore socially dead, unable to form contracts or moral obligations to others, and unrecognized as a person.

By viewing slavery in world history, Graeber (2011) argues that on each continent, slavery became more formalized when backed by the violence of empires. He also argues that slavery in empires was the impetus for the invention of money — because money served as a portable way to pay soldiers who had to travel about, using violence to capture slaves or expropriate other resources. This is an example about how systematic oppression is a system with different parts (e.g., economic practices, governmental practices, social roles) that work together.

World-wide attention was brought to contemporary slavery by Kevin Bales’ (1999) book, Disposable People. Bales (1999) defines slavery as “The complete control of a person, for economic exploitation, by violence, or the threat of violence.” This definition of slavery covers people forced to give up their organs, to serve as serfs, or to marry, as well as people forced into unpaid labor in concentration camps, in nurseries or farms and in certain factories.  The conditions of foreign workers are vulnerable, as Graeber’s (2011) analysis would suggest. In fact, a company operating in NC and CT was charged with enslaving foreign workers. but note that it also includes people forced to give up their organs, to serve as serfs, to marry to someone they have not chosen, or perform sex work.

People in the most desperate circumstances are the most vulnerable to being enslaved and exploited. People who are orphaned or widowed, who have families to support, and those from very poor nations, nations at war and with social-political disruption, can be deceived into thinking they will be well-paid by someone who will transport them to a different and richer location to work. (This is the real-life tragedy of the cat and fox kidnapping Pinocchio). Some people in desperate circumstances agree to be brought to work off the expense of their transportation on the often-false assumption that such an agreement will be honored. Still others inherited debts when they were born. People born into debt can be freed with the cooperation of others, but it is necessary that they have security if they are (Bales, 2002). The social and economic aspects of slavery are inextricable.


Bales, K. (1999). Disposable People. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Bales, K. (2002, April 24). The social psychology of modern slavery. Scientific American,

Bell, J. (2008). Contemporary Slavery and International Law. Human Rights and Human Welfare.

Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: The first 5000 years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing.

Painter, N. I (2010). The History of White People. NY: Norton.

Side note: Irish indentured servitude is seen by some historians as the beginning of the model for chattel slavery in the U.S. In fact, Prof. Nell Irvin Painter (2010) argues that there were White people held as slaves early in U.S. history. But most historians reject the idea that indentured servitude was the same as chattel slavery because a bonded person had more agency in beginning the relationship than a captured person. Further, this was a temporary position that did not transfer to one’s children, whereas neither of those were true of chattel slavery. Currently, in popular discourse especially on the internet, this is discussed as “the myth of Irish slavery” because Michael Hoffman, a holocaust denier, has written a book claiming that Irish people were more mistreated than African people, and such a claim is used to trivialize racism. Knowing the facts is important. See snopes article.

It is also the case that just because one group of people suffered that others did not also suffer.

Class Exercises

(Assuming students generate as much content as they can; otherwise instructor can provide lists).

  1. List as many kinds (categories) of slavery as you can (e.g., relying on Lusk & Lucas (2008) or other sources). Write those as headings to columns.
  2. As rows, describe particular kinds of relationships or situations you know about that are, or are similarly to, slavery. For example, sometimes people labor only to remain in debt to their employers. My grandfather and many other coal miners were never paid their wages in cash. They were paid only in “scrip” — paper that the mine owners produced and which could only be spent back to the company. The company owned the miner’s housing, the only store selling food and supplies, and even charged school fees for miner’s children, all of which could be paid in scrip — unless one needed a loan, which meant future unpaid work. Pay-day lenders today, and share-croppers, lived in essentially the same  kind of debt bondage. (Or, each student can research a particular situation like this and report back to the class).
  3. Now that you have a table, with examples of (near-)slavery in rows and categories of slavery in columns, check off which kind(s) of slavery each of your examples seems to fit. When you are done, can you figure out a pattern.
  4. Use the same columns of categories of slavery as from 1. Make your table rows the kinds of bases of power that Power Basis Theory identifies (e.g,. material resources, legitimate acceptance in a community). Then, for each kind of slavery, mark whether the people being enslaved have that kind of power, whether they can get it from being enslaved, or would lose it from being enslaved.
  5. For each kind of slavery from Q 1, how is each of the basic power-related concepts relevant? (e.g., agency, coercion)

Relevant courses: literature, history, logic, anthropology.

Additional Resources

How does your consumption impact modern slavery? Find out here

US State Department Outlines of Modern Slavery

Modern Slavery in the Restaurant Industry

Organizations against modern slavery

What modern Slavery looks like

Measuring Modern Slavery

Labor by U.S. Prisoners — Is it slavery?

Latest UN standards re forced labor

Anti-slavery activism by Catholic Relief Services

List of anti-slavery organizations by End Slavery Now