New York Times, September 9, 2000
By a conservative estimate, there are 27 million people working under various forms of slavery in the world today, and the number is growing. In contrast to the slavery America knew, today's slaveholders mainly exploit people of their own race. But as in the American past, they use violence and threats to force people to labor for no pay. Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it thrives because of the corruption of police and government authorities. Many people are unaware that modern slavery exists.
People held in some form of bondage pick sugar cane in the Dominican Republic, make the charcoal used in Brazil's steel industry and work as prostitutes in Thailand. In Mauritania and Sudan blacks are forced into domestic and agricultural slavery in Muslim households. Similar forms of oppression are not unknown in developed nations. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that 45,000 women and children are smuggled into the United States each year with false promises of decent jobs. Instead, most find that their passports are stolen and they are forced to work as prostitutes or maids, on farms or in sweatshops.
But the majority of people who are treated like slaves, perhaps 20 million, according to the United Nations, are South Asians in debt bondage. The system is chillingly described in "Disposable People," a survey of contemporary forms of slavery by Kevin Bales, who teaches at the University of Surrey in England. Whole families, including children, are trapped into peonage to pay debts incurred by medical expenses, a funeral or crop failure. Their debts are inflated by outrageous prices for food and usurious interest rates. Families can essentially be enslaved for generations.
Slavery and related kinds of servitude are a growing business because the number of desperately poor people is increasing and globalization has disrupted rural communities. In many nations, children, mainly girls, must drop out of school to work. A girl in a northern Thai village can be sold into prostitution for $2,000 — a huge sum there. A Thai survey found that many families knowingly sold daughters into prostitution because they felt pressure to buy consumer goods such as televisions. Girls stay until they contract AIDS, and are then sent back to their villages to die in disgrace.
While slavery is illegal, it is hard to eradicate. Even the United States lacks adequate criminal penalties for those who traffic in human beings. Moreover, the victims — the potential witnesses — are usually deported. This may change, however, as both houses of Congress recently passed a bill that would criminalize trafficking, end the rapid deportation of victims and provide help for them here and modest programs to prevent slavery abroad.
Slavery and forced labor are even more difficult to fight in nations where they draw support from traditional structures of power and corruption, the devaluation of women and, in India, the caste system. Educating the poor about how to avoid falling victim helps, as do small loans and skill training. India has an excellent program to pay off laborers' debts and give them training and land. But Dr. Bales argues that local officials and judges often sabotage it.
The first step in combating modern variations of slavery, however, is education. The developed world needs to realize that slavery exists, and that its victims may have helped produce the clothes, rugs and other goods we buy. It is especially important for people in nations where it is widespread not to accept it as a traditional practice but to see it as one of the most serious abuses of human rights.