Slavery, many Americans believe, ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. For the most part, that was the end of chattel slavery, when a person was treated as another person’s property, to be bought, sold, inherited, and controlled. Yet, if you define slavery as the condition in which humans are forced to work, under the threat of violence, for no pay beyond enough to subsist, it is rampant in our world.
If slavery were an American state, says anti-slavery expert Kevin Bales, it would have a population greater than that of California, and it would have the economic output of Washington, D.C. It would be the third largest producer of carbon dioxide, after China and the U.S. Trafficking in people is the second largest type of organized crime after drug trafficking.
Labor trafficking is the most common form of slavery today. It occurs when a person must work off a debt that grows ever bigger. In bondage, the debt may be an actual loan, often made when a medical crisis hits a family, or it may be the cost of tools for working at a specific job. Add to the loans outlandish interest and fees for food and rent, and a person has a lifetime of work to be debt-free. Some threat of violence is added, varying from physical abuse to the threat of jail to retribution to the family. This form of slavery preys on the poor and uneducated in areas of the world with corrupt governments. Complaints can be met with threats or beatings.
Those trafficked for labor grow our coffee, sugar, fish, shrimp, and beef, mine our gems, gold, and minerals for electronics, make our clothes, rugs, and steel. The enslaved people do this work because consumers in developed countries want cheap goods. The easiest cost to control is the cost of labor, and using slaves brings the cost down.
There are three primary causes of slavery – extreme poverty, lack of education, or gender inequality, keeping girls as less than second class, a commodity to be bartered like a cow, with girls having no voice.
In addition, if a country itself is poor and is spending much money on debt repayments, it has no money left to pay police, judges, and investigators a fair wage. Those government workers, then, are open to bribes and corruption. Further, if an ecosystem has been ruined, there is a greater chance for the people in it to become enslaved. Corruption and environmental destruction in a poor country results in slavery occurring in national forests, nature preserves, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the protected territories of indigenous people.
What can we do? We can pray, study and act. We need to learn about this issue. I have listed book titles and authors that I find informative and compelling. Next, join groups working to stop this abomination. There are specific anti-slavery groups, such as Free The Slaves, which was cited often in my research. Some organizations have anti-slavery work as one of its goals. We, Dominicans of Peace, are one such group. If I may be biased here, I am pleased to hear of the good work that Catholics are doing in this area. Priests are running halfway houses; sisters take in girls running from Dutch brothels; sisters are educating people about their rights in Brazil.
Then act. If you can give, money is needed to keep anti-slavery programs going, to care for people in shelters and halfway houses, or to buy animals so that a family can have milk, eggs, or honey. Lobby everyone you can. The money spent worldwide to fight slavery in one year would not buy a B-1 bomber. It is believed that $945 million could greatly reduce slavery. That is .000043% of the U.S. government’s budget. When you lobby, encourage microcredit and grants to NGOs to alleviate poverty, thus alleviating the need for bonded slavery and selling children. Encourage international groups to provide education and jobs. Do what you can to improve health around the world. A health crisis is the most common reason a family falls into debt bondage. Enforce the laws, both national and international, against slavery, and against the import of slave-made goods into the U.S. Pay government workers, including police and judges, enough that they won’t take bribes and will instead enforce slavery and environmental laws. Encourage cap and trade in which ex-slaves can plant trees for fair wages. Keep prostitution criminalized. This does not mean that the women and children need to be prosecuted. But legalizing prostitution increases sex trafficking, increases organized crime involvement, and makes it easier to hide slavery.
Be nosy. In the U.S., a third of all slave rescues result from the actions of good samaritans. Do you rarely see your neighbor’s “cousin” unless she is working outside? Do the nail artists at a nearby business sleep in the store? Does a large egg farm keep workers in rundown trailers and never let them leave? Question these activities!
Be a compassionate consumer. Wendell Berry says that when we buy food, we are “farming by proxy.” We are also mining by proxy, sewing by proxy, weaving by proxy. Know where your food and goods come from and how they are made. In Brazil, we see that family farms are more efficient, use less fuel to get the fresher food to consumers, protect the environment, and use little slavery, while large agribusiness farms are often found to hire slaves. Avoid meat and tropical oils that are grown by slaves on deforested areas. Don’t use bio-fuels, which make grain more expensive and children hungrier and are often grown by slaves.
Check that your gold, fish, wood, shrimp, coffee, tea, and cocoa are produced without slavery and without environmental destruction. See if manufacturers and producers have a corporate social responsibility statement on their website. Demand that goods be made without trafficked people, without conflict materials, and without environmental degradation. Consumers demanded that tuna be harvested without dolphins, and now the practice is standard. We can do the same with other goods. In fact, in 2002, chocolate companies, anti-slavery groups, anti-child labor groups, trade unions, and consumer groups signed the Cocoa Protocol saying that cocoa produced from West Africa is slave-free and child labor-free.
Gold, cassiterite, and coltan are among the materials needed for the electronics that we need when we say that communications should be paperless, and that destroy the environment and enslave people. Some manufacturers are trying to be responsible. Before buying the next device, see if the manufacturers use the iTSCi or ITRI Supply Chain, Inc., the Extractives Workgroup, the Electronics Code of Conduct, or the Global e-Sustainability Initiative or GeSI.
There is some hope. We have the Trafficking Victim and Protection Act. Truck drivers, hair stylists, and medical personnel are trained to recognize trafficking. Law enforcement prosecutes domestic violence, so pimps cannot say that a battered woman is their spouse and there are no consequences. Prostitution is illegal, and there are restrictions on the pornography that may be displayed. Progress is happening.
- Understanding Global Slavery: A Reader, Kevin Bales
- Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World, Kevin Bales
- A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face With Modern-Day Slavery, Benjamin Skinner
- Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade—and How We Can Fight It, David Batstone
- Human Trafficking, Kathryn Cullen-DuPont
- Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, Siddharth Kara
- The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today, Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter