Slavery is not dead, just less recognizable.
Today, 27 million people are enslaved, more than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.
Slaves are cheap these days. Their price is the lowest it's been in about 4,000 years. And right now the world has a glut of human slaves - 27 million by conservative estimates and more than at any time in human history.Skip to next paragraph
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Although now banned in every country, slavery has boomed in the past 50 years as the global population has exploded. A billion people scrape by on $1 a day. That extreme poverty combined with local government corruption and a global economy that leaps national boundaries has produced a surge in the number of slaves - even though in the developed world, that word conjures up the 19th century rather than the evening news.
"For an American audience, their conceptualization of slavery is locked into a picture from the past," says Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net), a nonprofit in Washington. "It's fixed in the slavery of the deep South and it's about African-Americans being enslaved on plantations with chains and whips and so forth."
Modern-day slavery has little of the old South. Of those 27 million, the majority are bonded laborers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal - workers who have given their bodies as collateral for debts that never diminish no matter how many years, or sometimes generations, the enslaved labor on. Cooking the books is an early lesson for slaveholders.
Yet despite this new largely unacknowledged slavery epidemic, Dr. Bales is optimistic. While the real number of slaves is the largest there has ever been, he says, it is also probably the smallest proportion of the world population ever in slavery. Today, he adds, we don't have to win the legal battle; there's a law against it in every country. We don't have to win the economic argument; no economy is dependent on slavery (unlike in the 19th century, when whole industries could have collapsed). And we don't have to win the moral argument; no one is trying to justify it any more.
The fact that it's still thriving, he explains, comes down principally to ignorance about the institution and lack of resources directed at eradicating it.
Lack of public awareness is strikingly apparent in developed countries, where few are conscious that it is not exclusively a third-world problem.
Although the numbers are small relative to the worldwide challenge, in the developed world slavery happens uncomfortably close to home. For instance, between 14,000 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States annually, according to the US government, most forced into the sex trade, domestic servitude, or agricultural labor. At any one time, between 52,000 and 87,000 are in bondage. And much of that is in plain view, in towns and cities across the country, experts say. People simply don't recognize it.
In June, an Indian domestic in Brookline, Mass., won a court case against an Omani couple who had barred her from leaving their apartment unescorted for more than a year, forcing her to look after their four children, cook, and clean without proper pay or meals. An alert neighbor who caught wind of her plight helped her escape.
But that is the exception, suggests Tommy Calvert of American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston. "Law enforcement and legal professionals don't always identify a victim of slavery as such." And the public is even less likely to recognize the signs.
Last month, the State Department issued a fact sheet urging citizens "to help end modern-day slavery" and warned "it may even be happening in their own backyards."
It's where domestic violence was 35 years ago, Bales say. No one talked about it, no shelters existed, and no one had written a pamphlet laying out what it looked like.
That's about to change. A pamphlet on slavery is in the works, says Bales, who hopes to get it distributed to neighborhood watch groups around the US before the end of the year, if funding comes through. The draft, titled "How can I recognize trafficking victims" includes a list of "visible indicators" of whether an establishment is holding people against their will and the physical signs that a person might be enslaved. Once people are better informed, he expects a flood of cases.