Magazine Feature

Human Trafficking

Slavery never went away, and students need to know how it affects today’s world.
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Illustration by Doug Chayka

In early December 2009, Reggie Wills rose before an assembly at the Edmund Burke School, in Washington, D.C. His T-shirt was emblazoned with the question, “Can you hear it?” On the back, the shirt elaborated: “The silent cry of 27 million enslaved.”

For Burke students and Wills, the school’s director of equity and inclusion, the assembly commemorated the 1949 United Nations convention on human trafficking. The event kicked off efforts to shine new light on why slavery persists in the 21st century. The program seeks to alert students and their communities about slavery’s slippery guises in the modern day, including bonded labor, involuntary servitude and forced prostitution.

This is not the human bondage characterized in high school history books, notes Wills. “Many of our students had images from the 17th and 18th century, with slaves shipped to the United States in chains and working on cotton plantations,” he says. “Today, [slavery] takes on different forms. It’s a problem all over the world, and in the United States as well.”

The shadowy, criminal nature of human trafficking makes evaluating its nature and scope difficult. The U.S. State Department and anti-trafficking groups estimate that worldwide some 27 million people are caught in a form of forced servitude today. Most labor in the developing world, especially in India and African nations. No nation, however, is immune from these inhumane practices. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies have found that human trafficking rings are strengthening inroads into every country, including the United States.


The Nature of Slavery Today

Public awareness of modern-day slavery is gaining momentum thanks to new abolitionist efforts. Among today’s leaders is Ken Morris, president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives.

“Awareness is the key to one day resolving the issues,” says Morris, who is a direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist, and Booker T. Washington, the leading African-American spokesman of the early 20th century. “We need to help people better understand the inhumanity of slavery in every form, with the idea that once people pay attention to the issue, they will be motivated to address it.”

Today’s slavery has metastasized from its pre-industrial roots. Today’s versions go by new names, including forced labor, involuntary domestic servitude, sex trafficking, bonded labor, forced child labor and the impressment of child soldiers into army units. But each form involves the exploitation of vulnerable populations—predominantely women and children—for financial gain. The average price for a human slave today is just $90, according to the anti-slavery organization Free the Slaves. But in aggregate, slavery is a huge international shadow industry worth more than $32 billion annually.

Sources of slaves today are depressingly familiar. In many developing countries, destitute families are forced to sell their children to sweatshops and brothels. In Thailand, for example, young girls are lured from the countryside with the promise of good jobs in the city. But they soon find themselves initiated into the grotesqueries of prostitution.

Slavery Happens Here

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in December 1865, prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. But nearly 150 years later, cases involving bonded labor, human trafficking, sexual slavery and other forms of forced labor are popping up in increasing numbers. David Batstone, president of the Not for Sale Campaign, estimates that the number of slaves in the United States may be as high as 200,000, encompassing both forced labor and forced commercial sex.

Most of the victims are from outside the country, and their foreign status leaves them vulnerable to coercion. Smugglers, pimps and racketeers terrify victims with threats of arrest and deportation.

Here are some recent cases of human trafficking in the United States:

  • In 1985, two married doctors in Milwaukee brought a 19-year-old domestic servant from the Philippines. For 19 years, the woman worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, earning $4 a day. Police acted on a tip and freed her in 2004. The doctors were convicted and served six years in prison.
  • In 2008, hundreds of guestworkers from India, lured by false promises of permanent U.S. residency, paid tens of thousands of dollars each to obtain temporary jobs at Gulf Coast shipyards only to find themselves forced into involuntary servitude and living in overcrowded, guarded labor camps. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit on the guestworkers’ behalf. The case remains active.
  • In June 2010, the Philadelphia office of the FBI cracked a human-trafficking operation run by a band of four Ukrainian brothers. The brothers lured workers to the United States with the promise of cleaning jobs, but they forced their recruits to work for little or no pay. To maintain obedience, they threatened violence against the workers’ families back in Ukraine and against the workers themselves.

In the last decade, state and federal law enforcement agencies haved dedicated more energy to investigating and shutting down human-trafficking rings in the United States. Unfortunately, their caseloads continue to grow.

We need to help people better understand the inhumanity of slavery in every form, with the idea that once people pay attention to the issue, they will be motivated to address it.

Destitute laborers may bond themselves to a master in hopes of crawling out from under crushing, often bottomless debt. In south India, bonded gem cutters work for years to pay off debts that may amount to less than $50. High fees for room and board, compounded by absurdly high rates of interest, mean the debt is always beyond fulfillment, and may even be passed on to children and grandchildren.

In the United States, foreign workers can also find themselves swept into the black market of bonded labor. Undocumented immigrants and workers who arrive with sham agreements are particularly vulnerable, caught between ruthless employers and fears of deportation. They may be subjected to bonded labor to work off debt to the smugglers who arranged for their passage into the country. They may end up as servants in private homes where they suffer abuse and sexual exploitation.

Illustration of various human trafficking victims


Enlisting Students to Confront Modern Slavery

Organizations like the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives are committing much of their efforts to getting the message out to young people about slavery today. They are teaming with educators to teach students about its current forms, and get students motivated to share their newfound awareness.

Elizabeth Devine is a social studies teacher at William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. She includes a three-week unit covering human trafficking and modern-day slavery in her one-semester course on human rights.

Devine’s unit features films, books and guest speakers to help students relate to and engage the material. She introduces the topic with scenes from the film Human Trafficking, a fictionalized look at the sex trade in Eastern Europe. She invites experts, such as a federal prosecutor who presided over a local human trafficking case,  into the classroom. “The kids couldn’t believe [human trafficking] was happening here,” Devine says.

Her curriculum also includes excerpts from Sold, Patricia McCormick’s account of a young Nepalese girl who was purchased by an Indian brothel. The class views segments of the PBS series The New Heroes, which features vignettes of individuals around the world fighting modern-day slavery. Students’ perspectives expand from the individual to the systemic when they read Kevin Bales’ book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

“No doubt it’s provocative,” says Devine, named the 2009–2010 Secondary Teacher of the Year by the National Council of Social Studies. “The high school students can handle it. And I don’t give them titillating things about sex to read. We focus on the difficulties faced by the women.”

The more students investigate, the more they recognize the economic underpinnings of human trafficking. They learn that wherever there is greed and vulnerable people, conditions exist for turning humans into slaves.

Devine guides students in tracking their own attitudes and perspectives as they explore the mini-unit. She has them keep a “dialectical journal,” synthesizing ideas from in-class discussions with their own ideas and personal responses to texts and videos.

To create the journal, students separate a page into two columns. On the left, they record the facts and concepts included in the text or video, including quotations and descriptions of material that affected them. In the right-hand column, they jot down their own thoughts, questions and insights. “They do it after everything we see or read, so they are constantly reflecting on what they learn,” Devine says.

The unit culminates in an “action project.” These projects ask students to research an issue, then perform a related project in the community. Last year, two girls teamed up to collect backpacks and toiletries for women who had been rescued from traffickers and were living in a safe house.

Service-learning projects also play a central role in the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives' programs. The organization encourages educators to design units that compare and contrast today’s anti-slavery struggle with the abolition movements of the past. In one project, called “Off the Chain: Preventative Abolition,” students study how masters used violence and coercion to control slaves. In today’s sex industry, pimps use similar tactics to keep control over prostitutes. Students are asked to come up with ways to educate their peers and other young people about the unglamorous, cruel reality of the sex trade.

In Chicago, students taking part in the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives' program explore the subject of slavery through the lens of history. They study the story of Haiti, a republic founded by former slaves who had rebelled against their French owners. 
They then learn about Haiti’s “restavek” system, an entrenched practice in which poor families send their kids to work in the homes of the wealthy—a system the United Nations classifies as slavery. Students are encouraged to create a bridge to Haiti through sister-city programs and letter-writing campaigns urging action to end this form of child exploitation.

“We use history as the entry point,” says Robert Benz, executive director of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. “And then we look at child trafficking in Haiti.”

At last year’s International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, students at Edmund Burke presented a range of co-curricular projects. In one math class, high school students conducted a statistical analysis of slavery today. One student recited her poem on the theme of human bondage. Another produced a DVD of digital images featuring women and children enslaved around the world. Others created pamphlets and handed them out on the streets of Washington, D.C., to educate passersby to the suffering of 21st century slaves.

Local media helped amplify their message. A Washington newspaper covered the day’s events, and National Public Radio broadcast a segment featuring students speaking about their desire to eradicate slavery.

“There was unity in our cause, and it brought our community together,” Wills says about the day’s events. “The students learned that it’s important not to turn a blind eye to [modern slavery] and that they can make a difference in saving the lives of the innocent.”

Teaching Tips

The issue of slavery can offer a powerful connection between historical and contemporary issues. Adding service-learning components, such as letter-writing campaigns, also helps students recognize they can take an active role in fighting modern-day bondage.

Here are several tips for getting started:

Cultivate local contacts. Find lawyers and activists in your community or area who are fighting human trafficking. A surprising number of communities have experienced cases of human trafficking and forced labor.

Don’t be afraid to discuss the topic. Human trafficking is an emotional, complicated topic that can elicit strong feelings. Teachers are in a unique position to help students process information and sort through their responses to the issue.

Access online resources. Good sites include the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives at; Free the Slaves at; and the U.S. State Department at

Include action projects. Issues such as modern-day slavery can overwhelm students with a sense of despair. But getting them involved in projects to address the issue teaches them they need not be powerless in the face of evil.

Promote open, respectful discussion. The subject of human trafficking may raise disturbing issues. Structure and guide class discussions so they are open, honest and respectful.

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