Sojourners, March 15, 2007
Title: “From Sex Workers to Restaurant Workers, the Global Slave Trade Is Growing”
Author: David Batstone
Foreign Policy, March/April 2008
Title: “A World Enslaved”
Author: E. Benjamin Skinner
Student Researcher: Brandon Leahy
Faculty Evaluator: David McCuan, PhD
Twenty-seven million slaves exist in the world today, more than at any time in human history. Globalization, poverty, violence, and greed facilitate the growth of slavery, not only in the Third World, but in the most developed countries as well. Behind the façade in any major town or city in the world today, one is likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings.
As many as 800,000 are trafficked across international borders annually, and up to 17,500 new victims are trafficked across US borders each year, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ). More than 30,000 additional slaves are transported through the US on their ways to other international destinations. Attorneys from the DOJ have prosecuted ninety-one slave trade cases in cities across the United States and in nearly every state of the nation.
Commerce in human beings today rivals drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade for top criminal activity on the planet. The slave trade sits at number three on the list, but the gap is closing. According to the US State Department’s 2004 Trafficking in Persons Report, the FBI projects that the slave trade generates $9.5 billion in revenue each year. A report put out by the International Labor Office in 2005, titled “Global Alliance Against Forced Labor,” estimates that figure to be closer to $32 billion annually.
Like the slaves who came to America’s shores over 200 years ago, today’s slaves are not free to pursue their own destinies. They are coerced to perform work for the personal gain of those who subjugate them. If they try to escape the clutches of their masters, modern slaves risk personal violence or reprisals to their families.
Increasingly severe and widespread poverty and social inequality ensure a growing pool of recruits. Parents in desperate straits may sell their children or at least be susceptible to scams that will allow the slave trader to take control over the lives of their sons and daughters. Young women in poverty-ridden communities are more likely to take risks on job offers in faraway locations. The poor are apt to accept loans that slave traders can later manipulate to steal their freedom. Thousands of traffickers lure children from impoverished rural parents with promises of scholarships, free schooling, and a better life. All of these paths carry unsuspecting recruits into the supply chains of slavery.
Though modern day forms of slavery are emerging to suit global markets, bonded labor continues to be the most common form of slavery in the world. In a typical scenario, an individual falls under the control of a wealthy patron after taking a small loan. The patron adds egregious rates of interest and inflated expenses to the original principal so that the laborer finds it impossible to repay. Debt slaves may spend their entire lives in service to a single slaveholder, and their “obligation” may be passed on to their children. Bondage, with no legal standing, is typically established through fraud and maintained through violence.
The United Nations, whose founding principles call for it to fight bondage in all its forms, has done little to combat modern slavery. And though since 1817 nations have signed more than a dozen international antislavery resolutions, very little effect has been realized.
Authors David Batstone and E. Benjamin Skinner are, however, impressed and heartened by the effectiveness of nongovernmental abolitionists around the world involved not only in brave acts of liberating slaves, but in launching transitional schools and training facilities for those recently freed.
UPDATE BY BENJAMIN SKINNER
When Foreign Policy published “A World Enslaved” in March 2008, they dropped a rock in a pool. There were few ripples. The mainstream media seems to have trouble grasping and presenting the concept that there are more slaves today than at any point in human history. And for understandable reasons: legal slavery was buried in most countries a long time ago. On a positive note, in its June 4 Trafficking in Persons Report the US State Department began to seriously address forms of slavery other than sex slavery. But the media seems to find little of interest in the bondage of millions who are enslaved in industries other than commercial sex. And such a narrow presentation means that the struggle against slavery in all its forms remains hidden and underfunded.
Despite the media abandonment, a handful of American citizens who had never been exposed to the issue before got involved after reading A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern Day Slavery, the book that the Foreign Policy piece excerpted. A plastic surgeon in Missouri offered his services pro bono to those survivors who had scars as a result of their slavery; a woman from North Carolina lobbied her elected officials to stop slavery in Romania; a famous visual artist is working on a series of pieces about modern-day slavery, and has offered to give the proceeds from the sales to Free The Slaves, the most effective organization working to combat slavery worldwide; other readers made their own contributions to Free The Slaves or to domestically-focused antislavery organizations like the DC-based Polaris Project. Those few Americans have made commitments that will help turn the tide against modern-day slavery—and carry on the struggle of our ancestors who were slaves and abolitionists.