Slavery Still Exists

“It took the transatlantic trade four hundred years to import 12 million African slaves to the New World … But now consider that in Southeast Asia an estimated 30 million women and children have been trafficked–in the past ten years.” Moises Naim, Illicit, Doubleday.

If you’re a avid facebooker like I am, chances are you’ve been invited to or made aware of the Slavery Still Exists profile picture event in which participants agree to change their profile picture to one that says “slavery still exists.” While I support the effort, I found that aside from some links to online articles, there wasn’t a ton of information behind the statement “slavery still exists.” So, I take it up on myself to elaborate, specifically in what I deem to be the most heinous form of slavery: the area of sex trafficking.

Human trafficking is one of the “big three” smuggling operations in the world today. Depending on where one gets their information, it’s either #2, behind drug smuggling, or #3, behind drug and weapon smuggling. Like all smuggling, the inherently secretive nature of it makes it impossible to get numbers, or even close estimates. Either way, the reality is that there is a flood of individuals–of human beings–transferring from poor countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Guatemala, etc) into rich countries (China, India, the US, the UK, etc) every day. This is the “immigration issue” that doesn’t get as much air time as the Mexico-USA border debate.

The truth is that a lot of those trafficked into the US (if I may use my own country for an example) are pushed into prostitution. Now, these women and children did not sign up for a prostitution vacation to the US. The trafficker promises these girls a job, usually as a model or waitress, where they’ll quickly be able to pay back the debt they’ll take on their shoulders for the relocation fee. They agree to pay a huge sum of money for their new opportunity–and look forward to sending more money home to their parents and siblings after the debt’s paid off. Upon arrival, however, these people find themselves without the job they were promised, with no friends or acquaintances aside from the trafficker, and a huge debt that now has to be paid off somehow. Are the puzzle pieces falling into place? Here’s another example: the rural parents of several young children are desperate to make ends meet. They are approached by a stranger who literally offers them cash for one of their children, a few hundred (US) dollars. To the trafficker, the payment is a drop in the bucket because they’ve got connections who will offer them thousands for the new child. Sometimes old enough to remember the ordeal, sometimes not.

Yes, one industry these new arrivals fall into is factory work, to be sure. Plenty of employers are hungry for immigrants who they can pay sub-standard wages and avoid paying expensive, legal workers. The same goes for farm laborers. However, the fact that cannot be overlooked is that there are prostitution rings in the US, from obvious locations like California or Florida to not-so-obvious ones like Vermont, which had a crackdown on in 2004, according to Naim. The girls are threatened with death if they try to escape, are often addicted to drugs provided by their pimps, and one house or storefront is the only world they’ve known since their relocation. Where can they go?

In Half the Sky, Kristof interviews a woman from a brothel in India who was forced to have sex up to ten times a day, seven days a week. The reason prostitution operations are not only growing, but constantly seeking new individuals, is that the human body can only withstand so much until it breaks down and is “worthless.” There is no “paid retirement,” if they last that long, and the probability that they’ve received any cash up to that point is almost zero–it’s all confiscated to pay off their massive debt, an arbitrary and flexible sum that really has no beginning or end. If that’s not the definition of slavery, what is?

Slavery did not end with the Civil War. Slavery does still exist, and as many argue might be a worse problem today than it was in the 1800s. Ethical shopping practices (avoiding sweatshops, checking origin sources) will not fix the problem, as some claim it will. This is not  an issue of labor laws in developing countries, it is an unchecked problem globally that is expanding to new markets (new cities, states) all the time. Do these women and girls have advocates? Yes, the Not For Sale Campaign is a well-known organization, as well as Polaris Project and Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Getting connected with one of these organizations is the first step to learning more and finding out what can be done. Additionally, you can use creative ways to fight this, one a one-to-one scale. It’s the reason when I decided to sponsor a child, I chose a 13 year girl from Bangladesh. At least I am making a difference in one life. What will you do?

The Rutherford Institute, Sex Trafficking: The Real Immigration Problem
Human Rights Dilemmas Forum, Workbook and Case Studies
National Criminal Intelligence Resource Center
California Alliance to Combat Traficking and Slavery Task Force, Human Trafficking in California: Final Report
Moises Naim, Illicit, Doubleday, 2005
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half The Sky, Knopf, 2009