In July 2009, President Barack Obama made his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa and took his wife and daughters to the Cape Coast Castle, a ghostly whitewashed fort in Ghana that was used to hold and ship Africans to the Americas during the time of the Atlantic slave trade. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Obama compared visiting Cape Coast to visiting Birkenau: “The experience of slavery is like the experience of the Holocaust.” Obama explained that when he discussed slavery with his children, he emphasized that it is important to “use [these] extraordinary moments to widen the lens to focus on the issues of Darfur, the violence in the Congo, sexual violence and other instances of contemporary human cruelty.”
Yet, Obama neglected to include the problem of slavery itself. In 2011, slavery still has significant contemporary relevance because it still exists. Tragically, slavery is not a single historical moment that has been comfortably confined to the past. Today there are an estimated 27 million slaves globally, more than during the 350 years of the Atlantic slave trade. The stories that modern slaves have lived to tell are harrowing. Rambho Kumar, a 13-year old boy in India, was forced to work 19 hours a day at a carpet loom. When his fingers bled from overwork, his owner would dip them into oil and light a match. At age 23, Beatrice Fernando, a woman from Sri Lanka, accepted a “job” in Lebanon, only to be forced into the house of an abusive employer who completely cut her off from the outside world. In Bucharest, a slave owner offered to sell one of his prostitutes, a young girl with Down syndrome in exchange for a used car. In Texas, a woman smuggled a 12-year-old Mexican girl across the border, with the promise of a “good education” in America. She was chained to a fence daily, made to do domestic service work, and was sexually abused with gardening tools. Slavery is illegal everywhere—finally banned in Saudi Arabia in 1962 and in Mauritania in 1981. There are now over 300 international treaties outlawing slavery. However, the institution of slavery still exists everywhere, not just in the places where it was recently abolished. How is this possible, and what can we do to end it?
Defining Modern Slavery
One of the biggest challenges in the fight against modern slavery is arguing that modern slavery is still slavery. Kevin Bales, the world’s expert on contemporary slavery and president of Free the Slaves, has defined slavery as a situation in which an individual is forced to work without pay under the threat of violence. Bales has used this definition to consult on the International Labor Organization’s statistics on slavery, and to independently conclude that there are currently over 27 million people in bondage.
The historical memory of the term slavery poses a unique hurdle in the present-day fight against it. Contemporary slavery is often qualified as “modern slavery” or “borderline slavery” or “forced labor” or “human trafficking,” in order to separate it linguistically from the historical memory of the Atlantic slave trade when Africans were shipped en masse to the New World. U.S. Ambassador John Miller, former Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, has explained that these new terms have an “anesthetic effect,” and he calls the phrase human trafficking “bloodless” and “bureaucratic.” As Miller explains, today’s slaves are not usually carted off in chains, and the shipment and transaction process is different from the Atlantic slave trade, but contemporary slaves still endure the same oppressive conditions as historical slaves. The first important step in the fight against slavery is a careful “verbal inflation” of the word slavery to refer to present-day atrocities. It should be used narrowly (low-paying jobs that people accept voluntarily are not slavery, and calling these conditions slavery is insulting to the hardships that millions of Africans endured during the Atlantic slave trade) and purposefully (to help ordinary citizens realize how devastating the situation still is so that they can pressure their governments to increase funding for anti-slavery research and policy). Reclaiming the word “slavery” will not end slavery by itself, but it is an important step creating rhetorical campaigns that can be used to inspire large-scale change.
If we rightfully accept that modern slavery is slavery, the contemporary situation contains all the horrors that the name implies. Today’s slaves are from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds, with no unifying racial identity. There are now at least 17,500 slaves in the U.S., and there may be up to 50,000. There are an estimated 10 million slaves in India, where historical conventions of “debt bondage” have resulted in conditions where millions of people are forced to work without pay and subjected to violence. There are also significant numbers of slaves in Africa and Latin America. 80 percent of slaves are female and are forced to work in domestic labor or prostitution, and a large percentage of slaves are children. Because slavery is illegal, the trade is often conducted through networks of organized crime. However, in Haiti anti-slavery laws are so little enforced that according to journalist Ben Skinner, the sale of children in slave markets occurs in public and in broad daylight.
Today’s slaves are also, arguably, more expendable than at any time in history. Using historical data to look at slavery throughout the Atlantic slave trade, Bales concluded that when owning a slave was a “status symbol,” during the years of the Atlantic slave trade, the average price of a slave was $40,000, adjusted to today’s currency, and a slave represented a significant investment. Today, the average price of a slave on the world market is $90. In North America, a slave can range between $3,000 and $8,000, and in India and Nepal, slaves are a mere five to ten dollars. While at one time you had to pay the equivalent of a year’s tuition at Columbia University to get a slave, now you can buy a human being for the price of a Starbucks coffee. According to Bales, “People have stopped being capital and have become like a Styrofoam cup. You buy them cheaply, you use them up, and when you’re done, you throw them away.”
The Modern Fight Against Slavery
In the 1990s, the seeds of a new abolitionist movement were sown. The end of the Cold War and the drastic economic liberalization of Eastern Europe brought more visibility to the issue of human trafficking across the borders of new post-Soviet states. Pioneering academics like Bales, who was a sociology professor at Roehampton University in London at the time, developed the methodology to “count” modern slaves. At the very end of the Clinton administration, the U.S. government passed its first comprehensive anti-slavery law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (HR 3244), which strengthened existing trafficking laws in the United States by defining minimum standards for enforcement and focused on “protection, prevention, and prosecution.” Under the TVPA, the U.S. government had the authority to rank countries based on their efforts to eliminate slavery. Three months on a low “Tier Three” ranking could result in economic sanctions.
During the first term of the Bush administration, “anti-slavery” became a priority of the religious right, in part because of the moral issues associated with slavery. Michael Horowitz became a passionate advocate for increased U.S. government funding for policies that would fight international sex slavery—a focus that brought attention to slavery but limited the scope of the anti-slavery movement by focusing on just one aspect of the problem. John Miller, a former Republican congressman and human trafficking ambassador for the U.S. State Department, worked tirelessly to increase U.S. funding for anti-slavery efforts. Provisions in the 2000 TVPA were strengthened in 2003 and again in 2007 to create border shelters for trafficking victims and to coordinate trafficking media alerts. Ben Skinner has pointed out that these policies were important policy steps, and he even claims that because of this legislation, “George Bush freed more slaves than any other U.S. president,” but that during the second term of the Bush administration, anti-slavery became less of a priority as the religious right began to focus on other issues, like gay marriage.
So far, President Obama’s attention to slavery has been lackluster. In 2008, Rick Warren pressured Obama to put an end to modern slavery, and Obama agreed it was a “top priority.” To date, Obama has made several prudent appointments; Luis CdeBaca, who was instrumental in crafting Clinton’s approach to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and Hillary Clinton, who has strongly supported anti-slavery legislation for over a decade. In 2010, Clinton approached the president’s cabinet and called for a re-definition of trafficking: “Let’s call it what it is, a modern form of slavery.” Nevertheless, Obama’s anti-slavery commitment could be much stronger. Even if the Obama administration has officially begun to use the term “modern slavery,” the issue is still not a priority and is rarely mentioned in press conferences or speeches. Funding for anti-slavery has been stagnant over the last three years. Skinner has suggested that the recession affected funding because government resources were directed mainly towards job creation and economic development policies in the United States.
Despite the recent achievements of the TVPA and its successors, the U.S. government is just in the beginning stages of coordinating effective anti-slavery action. By way of comparison, we are much farther along in the fight against “drug trafficking” than we are in the fight against slavery. The statistics on drug trafficking are more comprehensive—drug trafficking information is organized in multidimensional databases that look at the entire value-added chain. Similar data has not yet been collected on the scope of slavery. Part of this is politics—the Indian government is adamant that the number of slaves in their country is 10 million fewer than what researchers estimate. The other reason relates to resources—drug trafficking has received more funding. The amount that the American government spends each day in policing drug trafficking ($10 million) is equivalent to the annual budget of the State Department’s human trafficking department. Compiling more comprehensive statistics on slavery is crucial. We need to know exactly where to concentrate our efforts.
Ironically, though the United States is leading the developed world on anti-slavery policy (however, it is worth noting that there are important anti-slavery initiatives in other countries, including the Anti-Slavery International NGO in Britain). American persistence would be instrumental in convincing the governments of developing countries to implement stricter anti-slavery policies. For example, in March 2006, John Miller tried to pressure the Bush administration to demote India —the country with one of the highest numbers of slaves in the world—to a “Tier Three” in the hierarchy of anti-slavery countries and to vote against India’s development requests to the World Bank. Condoleezza Rice refused the proposal, but the initial pressure was an important starting point. The US State Department estimates that there are over 2 million sex slaves in India, but the Indian government has not reported a single sex slavery conviction. The Indian government has increased border controls, but Indian policy makes it abundantly clear that anti-slavery policy is not a priority.
Skeptics might argue that the sad truth of international politics is that it is often pragmatic to value strategic alliances over humanitarian concerns, no matter how tragic a human rights issue like slavery may be. However, the greatest lesson to be learned from the recent protests in the Middle East is that in 2011, it is nïave to underestimate the strength of liberal democratic idealism or the desire of ordinary citizens for fundamental social change. The anti-slavery cause benefits from the fact that every country in the world has already declared slavery illegal, and has agreed that it is wrong. It is time for the United States to use its clout—as the world’s superpower and as a country with its own tragic history of slavery—to nudge developing countries toward living up to agreements and laws they have already signed.
Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of a handful of individuals, on the grassroots level, the modern anti-slavery movement in America is still severly limited. Free the Slaves is the leading American anti-slavery organization. While their work is admirable, the anti-slavery movement could benefit from additional perspectives and greater collaboration with other human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, UNICEF and Human Rights Watch. These larger human rights organizations do focus on some slavery cases, but they often refer to them with the softer rhetoric of “trafficking” or “child labor.”
Part of the reason for the limited accomplishments in modern abolitionism, is the fact that the movement has also not successfully penetrated the mainstream American consciousness. There have been several recent artistic depictions of contemporary slavery, such as the “Florida Modern Slavery Museum,” a cargo truck with exhibits on slavery that tours the country. In the fall of 2010, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati curated an exhibit on modern slavery, and it was reviewed in the New York Times. Former slaves from India and Africa give speaking tours across the country. However, the reach of these important public awareness campaigns is relatively small. The fight against slavery has not yet resonated with Hollywood yet, where a great potential for mainstream exposure lies. There have been no blockbuster documentaries on contemporary slavery along the lines of Fahrenheit 911 or Inconvenient Truth. American movies, like the film Taken, starring Liam Neeson, which is about a beautiful American tourist who is sold into sex slavery, often just reinforce stereotypes. Kevin Bales has argued that the modern anti-slavery movement could use a new Uncle Tom’s Cabin to bring awareness to the problem. Bales notes that “the point of great literature is that it’s not about the social issue. War and Peace is not about war and peace, but the families caught up in the issues of war and peace. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not about slavery, it’s about the families that are ripped apart by slavery. No one has grasped that difference today in popular culture.” Whether books are still capable of packing the same punch is debatable, but one killer book endorsed by Oprah’s Book Club that captures the essence of the slave experience could go a long way.
How to End Slavery
On a government level here in the U.S., there is a need for a more coordinated, dare we say bipartisan, response to the issue, and there is a desperate need for increased funding. We need to pressure our government to more rigorously enforce existing anti-trafficking and anti-slavery legislation. We can also learn from some successful international models. Even though company-based slavery is just one part of the problem, we can tighten controls to eliminate slavery in economic production. There is a very successful pilot program in Brazil, where the government investigates and rates each step of the supply chain in key industries with just this in mind. Any company found using slave labor is subject to a fierce public relations campaign to destroy its business. Creating this sort of oversight would be instrumental in engaging Western consumer power. This is approach is currently being tested in California, with the “California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010” (CA SB 657), which aims to eliminate slavery from any step of the production process in the state.
The good news is that the cost of ending slavery is relatively cheap. Bales has estimated the average cost of liberating a single slave at $400, which includes all costs of a comprehensive and “sustainable freedom,” with medical care and job training. In India, it costs only $150 to liberate a family of four. Globally, this means that $10.8 billion, combined with more rigorous enforcement of existing international anti-trafficking laws, would be enough to liberate every slave on the planet. Harnessing the energy of micro-finance would be a boon to the modern abolitionist movement. There are effective abolitionist organizations to partner with. Free the Slaves focuses on empowering villages to eradicate slavery and diligently evaluates on-the-ground partners, to ensure effectiveness. Free the Slaves partners literally knock down doors to help slaves escape from bondage in the developing world.
We all have the opportunity to be part of the fight—working to increase awareness of this pressing human rights issue and transforming awareness into concrete action. Bales suggests that “the fundamental need of the movement is two things: increased public awareness and resources. It’s cyclical.” According to Bales, it is within the scope of our capabilities as individuals to advance these goals. So far, the anti-slavery movement has not used social media effectively. Of course, online activism should be approached with caveats. As Malcolm Gladwell rightly argued in a recent New Yorker article on activism, social change cannot happen without a sustained commitment. Gladwell points out that “the Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece… Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” At the same time, public awareness of slavery is so minimal that even Facebook-level awareness of slavery would be a step in the right direction to foster a greater political will. In some cases, too, online organizing has had remarkable results—the Obama campaign set a precedent for successful online organizing, and the anti-slavery movement could benefit from finding its own Chris Hughes. International microfinance has also proven that individuals can make a phenomenal difference. If, by 2006, ordinary citizens were able to provide over $25 billion in small loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries, the same can be done to fight slavery. A small donation to an anti-slavery organization is not insignificant if all it takes is $150 to provide the infrastructural support to free a human being and also to give them the launch-pad to a secure economic future.
The American abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” Even if we are not directly affected by slavery on a day-to-day basis, at a basic level, if we live in a world where slavery is still allowed to flourish, what is the value of our own liberty? Slavery is one of the most pressing human rights issues of our generation, and we could be the generation to finally end it.