Slavery did not go away at the end of the American Civil War. It also failed to disappear when the Nazi Labor Camps and the Soviet Gulags were liberated. Modern day slavery is as incidious as ever. The difference, today, is that it’s largely hidden from view.
Human trafficking and child labor are classified as criminal activity in most western nations. Yet, more than 12,000,000 people around the world suffer under the yoke of involuntary servitude. Closer attention and action about slavery has come into being since the establishment of the Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Slavery in 2007. The United Nations and most modern national governments are working to eliminate this barbaric practice.
Slavery continues to be such a huge international problem because this serious organized crime is so economically profitable to the perpetrators, and the ease in which involuntary servitude can happen.
Low-skilled, uneducated migrant workers are easily exploited as they are tricked into more prosperous areas from impoverished areas. They are lured by the promise of gainful employment. The workers are placed into businesses and households then soon discover they cannot escape. Frequently, these individuals are threatened, beaten, and locked into their sleeping quarters at night.
Human exploitation may be as close to us as the clothing we wear each day. Forced labor is used in cotton production and garment manufacture. A large share of modern textile production is done by extremely poor people. In order to pay for their food and shelter, they are convinced to borrow small amounts of cash. They are then forced to repay their debts at extremely usurious rates of interest. The indentured servants are never able to even pay down the principle of the loans. The end result is that entire families are forced into and children are often born into slavery. “Employers” are then assured of a perpetual supply of low cost and free labor.
Harsh, Dickensian working conditions daily await adults and children as young as five-years-old. Children are especially useful because their tiny fingers can do fine, intricate work. The adults and children are coerced into working 14 or more hours per day at dangerous, unhealthy labor.
Tragically, the enslaved individuals are expendable. Those people who do not prematurely die, often become crippled and unable to work. When they are no longer useful to the slavers, the injured workers are released. Often, the former slaves are reduced to begging for the rest of their lives. They are homeless and subsist on the streets of major cities.
Most sinister, is the trafficking of people for sexual exploitation. Almost two-thirds of trafficked women are used in the sex trade. Disturbingly, about half of the sex slaves in the world are minor children. In the United States, official estimates of up to 17,500 people, each year, are brought to the US to be “sold” into prostitution. The average “entry level” enslaved prostitute is 13-years of age. This black market economy yields an estimated $7,000,000,000 every year to organized criminals.
Even if we purchase ethical clothing and never use sex slaves, it is difficult to avoid using products of enslaved human beings. The commercial food industry is intertwined with business practices that utilize slavery. Around the world, entire families are often exploited in the fields to plant, cultivate, and harvest food crops.
Some of the worst activity involves our favorite luxury food products, namely coffee and chocolate. The lucrative cocoa and coffee production industries are rife with youthful indentured workers. In most cases, boys are exposed to hazardous pesticides that are illegal in the US. The underaged workers often work 18-hour days in tropical heat and humidity. The slaves are routinely whipped or caned. At night they are shackled and chained. To discourage escape attempts, some boys are killed as warning examples. When the youths are no longer useful to the producers, they are let go to fend for themselves on the streets of nearby cities.
“Debt Bondage” or “bonded labor” is the labor source for the coffee and cocoa industries. The extremely impoverished parents have no assets nor money to offer as collateral on their loans, so they pledge their children’s labor. An endless supply of workers are needed in the coffee industry due to the fact that coffee is the second most lucrative commodity behind oil. Meanwhile, Europeans are the largest market for cocoa products, with North Americans, second. The incentives to use cheap or “free” labor are obvious.
Of course, textiles and food are not alone in exploiting slave labor. The extraction of precious gem stones, rare metals, and the electronics industry use cheap and “free” workers at prodigious rates.
Its easy to feel overwhelmed when we realize that we may be unknowingly subsidizing and condoning modern day slavery. What can the average citizen do about this horrific crime?
The greatest tool we can use is awareness. Whenever caring, concerned people find out about slavery, they instinctively want to help end the practice. That is why more journalists are exposing slavers wherever possible. Many concerned people are working in anti-slavery non-profit and non-governmental organizations.
This is why we have the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, today. The intent of this commemoration is to eradicate human trafficking, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, child labor, and the recruitment of minors for military conflict.
We can insist upon and purchase only “fair trade” consumer goods and foods. Our money speaks volumes. When we buy only items that are produced by certified non-exploitative means, we send a loud message to slave traffickers.
If you have activist and organizing skills, you might be able to use them as a volunteer or professional advocate for the advancement of human rights to help enslaved people. Medical personel often volunteer to work in areas where indentured servitude proliferates. Legal experts are needed to advocate for strong penalties for slavers. Law enforcement agencies and police at home can be trained how to discover and deal with exploiters in sweat shops and the sex trade.
Another solution, is to join or start a grassroots level anti-trafficking group. This might be a victim outreach or to offer your own expertise to a larger anti-slavery organization.
We all can renew our concern and compassion towards the victims of human trafficking by meaningfully taking part in any local events and activities on this International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.