Slavery is not dead, just less recognizable.
Today, 27 million people are enslaved, more than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.
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Part of the confusion about slavery, says Bales, is that it has evolved over the centuries and what we traditionally thought of as slavery - chattel slavery - looks very different these days. But the definition remains the same: "Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised" (Slavery Convention of the League of Nations, 1926).Skip to next paragraph
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In his book "Disposable People," Bales says ownership is no longer an attractive proposition for most slaveholders because the price of slaves is so low. In 1850, a slave would cost about $40,000 in today's dollars. Now, you can buy a slave for $30 in the Ivory Coast. The glut "has converted them from being the equivalent of buying a car to buying a plastic pen that you use and throw away," he says. That makes maintenance of the "investment" a low priority, and little care is taken for slaves' well-being.
The most common type of slavery is debt bondage which traps 15 million to 20 million in loan agreements they can never pay off. Others are lured by false promises into forced labor situations, where they are coerced to stay under threat of violence. Slavery also includes the worst forms of child labor and sexual exploitation of women and girls.
The fastest growing type, however, is trafficking ("forcing and transporting people into slavery"). According to a Department of Justice report in June on human trafficking, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders each year (and millions more are trafficked within their own countries). Of those, about 80 percent are female, and an estimated 70 percent end up in the commercial sex trade, the report says. The United Nations estimates that the profits from human trafficking (about $9.5 billion last year) rank it among the top three revenue earners for organized crime, after drugs and arms. In 10 years, it's expected to be the top source of revenue.
This rapid rise has been met with new laws in the US (the Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2000, which was reauthorized and expanded last December), a rapid ratification of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime put forward in 2000, which also came into force last December, and greater sharing of information and coordination among nations to combat trafficking.
The UN declared 2004 International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition, even though, ironically, there are more slaves now than there were even at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.
Enforcement is one stalling point in its eradication. A Human Rights Watch report issued in July, for instance, looks at the pattern of exploitation of foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudis are held to account for a judicial system that makes its almost impossible for foreign nationals to appeal their circumstances, says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Middle East and Africa for HRW, the sending countries shirk their responsibilities, too. "They need to better protect their nationals," she says. "Unfortunately, each one [of the sending countries] says, if we make it tough for Saudi [Arabia] then they will just go to Pakistan [for foreign workers]. And Pakistan says, if we make it tough, then they will just go to the Philippines. So it's a race to the bottom."
Even when law enforcement is not in question, uncovering cases can be like looking for clues in the dark. Last year, only nine trafficking cases were prosecuted in the US with a total of 17 convictions - the smallest sliver of those working the new slave trade. "The thing that is unique about human trafficking and enslavement," says Bales "... is that it's a crime of seriousness equal to kidnapping, torture, murder etc. and yet it has the 'dark figure' [a criminologist's term for crimes that remain hidden, unreported] of bicycle theft."
The conditions of those enslaved are usually filled with physical and mental abuse and violence - or at least the constant threat of it - and sometimes unimaginable deprivations. Girls are frequently "broken in" to the profession of prostitution, for instance, through beatings and rape, and if they are rebellious, they may end up dead. Long hours, sometimes 15 or more a day, with no days off, privacy, or adequate food are common.