Modern Slavery: Our Biggest Secret, Our Greatest Threat
Forcibly drugged on a lethal mixture of heroin and alcohol, a young mother is compelled to have sex with dozens of strangers, never knowing whether it is day or night outside the dimly light walls of the inescapable Indonesian brothel. Her baby cries in a splintered crate fashioned into a crib at the foot of the bed; born as a product of modern slavery, the infant has already has contracted HIV/AIDS and will unlikely receive medical care before its death.
Hundreds of miles away, a teenage boy forgoes his education and childhood to painstakingly pick cocoa on a plantation under the scalding Ivory Coast sun, fulfilling the debt obligation left by his father who died in the very same field just weeks before.
In suburban America, a middle-aged Hispanic woman is being held as a domestic slave in the home of an average family of four, while just ten miles away in the city, a young African-American girl – once the valedictorian of her high school graduating class – is trafficked by her pimp through a series of massage parlors and cheap motels, never spending more than one night in the same bed or with the same man. Not far away the blond-haired and blue-eyed homecoming queen is chained to a bed in the Penthouse apartment of a man she thought would help her escape her violent home life.
As the sun sets over Yemen, an innocent boy or girl young as five is taking the vow of marriage alongside a man as old as his or her grandfather, after which this child will be taken to their matrimonial bed for the first time.
Separated by national borders, language, culture, faith, and gender, these individuals face drastically different circumstances – yet they share one stark similarity: they are all modern-day slaves.
And they are not alone.
Follow the Money: The Pervasiveness of Modern Slavery
Slavery generates at least $150 billion annually for those who deal in the exploitation of human beings. Only drug trafficking is estimated to have a higher overall profit margin, though the two Black Markets exist hand-in-hand. Of the estimated 36 million people enslaved in the world today, the International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that 26 percent are under the age of eighteen and 45 percent are men and boys.
The worst offenders (with the highest rates of slavery in the world) include Mauritania, Uzbekistan, Haiti, Qatar, India, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Though these ten countries lack the fundamental infrastructure to support government efforts to combat trafficking, every region and state in the world – including those in Western Europe and North America – play an integral role as a source, transit or destination point in the global slave trade.
Of those industries that most contribute to the trafficking of human beings, domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and entertainment are at the very core of slavery as we know it to be today. A woman, man, or child living in an Asian-Pacific country, for example, has an 50 percent chance of being forced into the region’s slave population estimated at 24 million people and representing more than 65 percent of the world’s total slaves.
Nearby Sub-Saharan Africa possesses at least 15 percent of the world’s slave population; followed by Russia and Eurasia at seven percent; the Middle East and North Africa at six percent; the Americas (North, Central and South) at more than three percent; and Europe at almost two percent.
But people are not percentages and data is not definitive. Slaves do not raise their hands to be counted; they cannot declare their status as trafficked persons. From Denver to Denmark their experience is unimaginable, they face indescribable atrocities. Yet the slave trade continues unabated, growing every year according to every statistic, study and report conducted annually on the issue.
Slavery is illegal everywhere, but weak enforcement of the law and widespread corruption, complicity, and ignorance ensures that slavery infects every town, every city, every state across the world. Among others forms of this heinous crime, forced and bonded labor, commercial sexual exploitation, human trafficking, forced domestic servitude, sex trafficking, child soldiering, organ trafficking, and child marriage thrive as ancient cancer eating away at our humanity, economic well-being, political viability, social equality as well as the moral reality of our modern civilization.
Then and Now: Modern Slavery as Staple of Society
After surfacing in 6800 B.C., the forcible ownership of people has become embedded in every aspect of human history, religion, politics, thought, society and culture. The only thing that has changed is its extent and prevalence. Modern slavery has seen its greatest evolution due, in large part, to warfare, exploding in eras of global conflict. From Roman rule to the Atlantic Slave Trade; through to European colonialism and the rise of American hegemony; from the advent of Nazi Germany and as the very lifeblood of the Soviet Union its Communist allies during the Cold War, today’s contemporary culture of global exploitation bears the notable features of every era.
And despite a decline in conflict and inter-state war, slavery is now sustained by the fast paced economic competition, integration and mobility that defines the oft-lauded era of globalization. And just as globalization has decreased prices while increasing the availability of products for the average consumer, these effects have been mirrored in the global slave trade. Free the Slaves, a preeminent non-profit in the anti-trafficking movement, reports that in 1809, the average price of a human being (when adjusting for the current market value) was $40,000. Now, a slave costs a mere $90 – the price of an average monthly cellphone bill or a dinner out with friends on a Saturday night.
Make a Difference? The Failed Efforts to End Modern Slavery
Efforts to collaborate or legislate against the spread of slavery have occurred at pivotal moments of human history – marking crucial periods when society stood in a moral solidarity against this atrocious crime. The British Abolition Act of 1834; the American Emancipation Proclamation of 1863; the League of Nations’ Slavery Convention of 1926, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery of 1956; the founding of the U.N. Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery in 1975; the creation of the The World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in 1996; the publication of the first Trafficking in Person Report by the United State State Department in 2001; the appointment of a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Trafficking in 2004; and the release of the release Global Slavery Index in 2013 represent the movement’s most sincere efforts. Yet activist, author and investigator E. Benjamin Skinner tell us that at at no other point in our human history have there ever been as many slaves as there are today. Our efforts, however noble, have failed.
From the sunny shores of Italy and the mountains of the Himalayas; in places as far away as Uzbekistan and Nigeria; to the shores of Queens, New York – the East coast capital of the slave trade in the United States – no person and no place is immune from the plague of slavery. Whether soliciting sex at a Super Bowl after-party, picking out a dress at Zara, or buying tomatoes at your local grocer, each and every one one of us – regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status – directly contributes to the slave trade each and every day. Slavery is the integral cog in the sprocket of how we live, how we eat, how we work – it is the fabric that binds the structure of our Twenty-First Century existence.
But we can end slavery now; and each of us has an important role to play. It’s time we start holding ourselves accountable in doing so.
Interested in learning more about modern slavery and human trafficking? Find out how you contribute to slavery through your daily purchasing decisions by visiting SlaveryFootprint.org. Read more about slavery and its impact on your community by visiting the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat the Trafficking of Persons, the United Nations Office of Drugs & Crime, the International Labor Organization or the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index. Then check out books by Dr. Kevin Bales including Modern Slavery: The Secret World of 27 Million People (2009) and Understanding Global Slavery: A Reader (2005).
This is the first article in a 10-part series highlighting modern slavery and trafficking in the Twenty-First Century. Check back with Millennial Magazine over the coming months to learn more about this critical issue and how you can join the movement to #EndSlaveryNow!
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