Twenty-seven million slaves exist in our world today. Girls and boys, women and men of all ages are forced to toil in the rug loom sheds of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Rome, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa.
Go behind the façade in any major town or city in the world today and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings. You may even find slavery in your own backyard. For several years my wife and I dined regularly at an Indian restaurant located near our home in the San Francisco Bay area. Unbeknownst to us, the staff at Pasand Madras Indian Cuisine who cooked our curries, delivered them to our table, and washed our dishes were slaves. Restaurant owner Lakireddy Reddy and several members of his family had used fake visas and false identities to traffic perhaps hundreds of adults and children into the United States from India. He forced the laborers to work long hours for minimal wages, money that they returned to him as rent to live in one of his apartments. Reddy threatened to turn them into the authorities as illegal aliens if they tried to escape.
The Reddy case is not an anomaly. As many as 800,000 are trafficked across international borders annually, and up to 17,500 new victims are trafficked across our borders each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. More than 30,000 additional slaves are trans-ported through the U.S. on their way to other international destinations. Attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice have prosecuted 91 slave-trade cases in cities across the United States and in nearly every state of the nation.
Like the slaves who came to America's shores 200 years ago, today's slaves are not free to pursue their own destinies. They are coerced to perform work for the personal gain of those who subjugate them. If they try to escape the clutches of their masters, modern slaves risk personal violence or reprisals to their families.
President George W. Bush spoke of the global crisis of the slave trade before the United Nations General Assembly in September 2003. "Each year 800,000 to 900,000 human beings are bought, sold, or forced across the world's borders," he said. "The trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed to thrive in our time." Of those individuals extracted out of impoverished countries and trafficked across international borders, 80 percent are female and 50 percent are children, according to the U.S. Department of State's "2005 Trafficking in Persons Report."
The commerce in human beings today rivals drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade for the top criminal activity on the planet. The slave trade sits at number three on the list but is closing the gap. The FBI projects that the slave trade generates $9.5 billion in revenue each year, according to the U.S. Department of State's "2004 Trafficking in Persons Report." The International Labour Office, in the 2005 report "A Global Alliance Against Forced Labor," estimates that figure to be closer to a whopping $32 billion annually.
"Ten Million Children Exploited for Domestic Labor"—this title for a 2004 U.N. study hardly needs explaining. The U.N.'s surveys found 700,000 children forced into domestic labor in Indonesia alone, with staggering numbers as well in Brazil (559,000), Pakistan (264,000), Haiti (250,000), and Kenya (200,000). The U.N. report indicates that children remain in servitude for long stretches of time because no one identifies their enslavement: "These youngsters are usually 'invisible' to their communities, toiling for long hours with little or no pay and regularly deprived of the chance to play or go to school." UNICEF estimates that 1 million children are forced today to sell their bodies to sexual exploiters. In a single country, Uganda, nearly 40,000 children have been kidnapped and violently turned into child soldiers or sex slaves.
WE MAY NOT EVEN realize how each one of us drives the demand during the course of a normal day. Kevin Bales, a pioneer in the fight against modern slavery, expresses well those commercial connections: "Slaves in Pakistan may have made the shoes you are wearing and the carpet you stand on. Slaves in the Caribbean may have put sugar in your kitchen and toys in the hands of your children. In India they may have sewn the shirt on your back and polished the ring on your finger."
Widespread poverty and social inequality ensure a pool of recruits as deep as the ocean. Parents in desperate straits may sell their children or at least be susceptible to scams that will allow the slave trader to take control over the lives of their sons and daughters. Young women in vulnerable communities are more likely to take a risk on a job offer in a faraway location. The poor are apt to accept a loan that the slave trader can later manipulate to steal their freedom. All of these paths carry unsuspecting recruits into the supply chains of slavery.
"The supply side of the equation is particularly bleak," says Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. "While there are 100,000 places in the developed world for refugee resettlement per year, 50 million refugees and displaced persons exist worldwide today. This ready reservoir of the stateless presents an opportunity rife for exploitation by human traffickers."
During the era of the American plantation economy, the slaveholder considered slave ownership an investment. The supply of new recruits was limited. The cost of extracting and transporting the slave, and ensuring that they would be serviceable by the time they reached their destination, was considerable. In the modern slave trade, the glut of slaves and the capacity to move them great distances in a relatively short period of time drastically alters the economics of slave ownership. Kevin Bales' description of modern slaves as "disposable people" profoundly fits: Just like used batteries, once the slave exhausts his or her usefulness, another can be procured at no great expense.
Notwithstanding these emerging trends in global markets, traditional modes of slavery also persist. Bonded labor has existed for centuries and continues to be the most common form of slavery in the world today. In a typical scenario, an individual falls under the control of a wealthy patron after taking a small loan. The patron adds egregious rates of interest and inflated expenses to the original principal so that the laborer finds it impossible to repay. Debt slaves may spend their entire lives in service to a single slaveholder, and their "obligation" may be passed on to their children. Of the 27 million people worldwide held captive and exploited for profit today, the Free the Slaves organization estimates that at least 15 million are bonded slaves in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.
IN MY JOURNEY to monitor the rise of modern global slavery, I had prepared myself to end up in the depths of depression. To be honest, I made some unpleasant stops there. But my journey did not end at despair. The prime reason: I met a heroic ensemble of abolitionists who simply refuse to relent. I felt like I had gone back in time and had the great privilege of sharing a meal with a Harriet Tubman or a William Wilberforce or a Frederick Douglass. Like the abolitionists of old, these modern heroes do not expend their energy handicapping the odds stacked against the antislavery movement. They simply refuse to accept a world where one individual can be held as the property of another.
Kru Nam is one of those abolitionists who operate on the front lines in the fight against sex slavery. She is a painter with a university degree in art who launched a project to reach street kids in Chiang Mai, the second largest town in northern Thailand. Once she turned the kids loose with paintbrushes, they created a series of disturbing images that added up to a horror story.
Kru Nam soon realized that most of the kids did not come from Thailand. Most came from Burma, with a sprinkling of Laotians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians tossed in the mix. The Burmese boys spoke of a well-dressed Thai gentleman who had visited their village in the south of Burma. Accompanying him was a 14-year-old Burmese boy who wore fine-tailored clothes and spoke Thai fluently. The man told parents that he was offering scholarships for young boys to attend school back in Thailand. "Look how well this child from your region is doing," he said, pointing to his young companion. "If you let me take your son back to Chiang Mai, I will do the same for him." Many families agreed to let their sons go with the Thai man. Once they reached Chiang Mai, the Thai man immediately sold them to owners of sex bars and brothels.
The boys living on the streets were the lucky ones; they had escaped. They told Kru Nam that many more boys remained captive. Her blood boiled. She could not stand by and do nothing.
Kru Nam did not exactly have a plan when she marched into the sex bar for her first raid. Only her mission was clear: rescue as many of the young boys as she could find. One by one she approached a table where a boy sat and calmly said, "Let's go, I'm taking you out of here." Several moments later, she was leading six little boys out the door and to her safe house in Chiang Mai.
Kru Nam made several more impromptu raids. Eventually, owners put the word out that they would kill her if she walked into their bars. Deploying a fresh strategy, she organized street teams to scour the night market of Chiang Mai and connect with young children recently off the bus from the northern Thai-Burmese border. Recruiters for the sex bars also trolled the streets on the hunt for vulnerable kids. It became a life-and-death contest to find them first.
One day it struck Kru Nam that if she moved upstream before the kids hit Chiang Mai she would have an edge over the recruiters. So she moved about 40 miles north to the border town of Mae Sai, a major thoroughfare for foot traffic between Burma and Thailand.
In Mae Sai she set up a shelter to take in kids on the run. Nearly 60 boys and girls today find safe refuge each night at Kru Nam's shelter. She has had to move her safe house several times. Neighbors on each occasion have forced her out; they do not want "these dirty kids" living on their block. So Kru Nam purchased a block of land some 15 miles outside of Mae Sai. She does not have the money she needs to buy a proper residence, so for the time being Kru Nam and the children will live on the land in temporary shelters.
KRU NAM IS IRREPRESSIBLE. She does not have a large organization standing behind her—a skeletal staff of three assists her and she receives modest funding from a tiny nongovernmental agency based in Thailand. What she does have is a burning passion to rescue young boys and girls so that they do not fall into the treacherous control of slaveholders. Her passage from a single act of kindness to fighting for justice on a grander scale is the quintessential story of the abolitionist.
The abolitionists working today are truly extraordinary, but they cannot win the fight alone. They are overwhelmed and beleaguered. The size and scope of Kru Nam's project is about the norm for abolitionist organizations. They sorely need reinforcements, a new wave of abolitionists, to join them in the struggle.
All of us wonder how we would have acted in the epic struggles of human history. Imagine we lived in rural Tennessee in 1855 and Harriet Tubman came to our door, asking us to join the Underground Railroad. Would we have stood up and been counted among the just?
There are times to read history, and there are times to make history. We live right now at one of those epic moments in the fight for human freedom. We no longer have to wonder how we might respond to our moment of truth. Future generations will look back and judge our choices, and be inspired or disappointed. n
David Batstone is a Sojourners contributing editor. This article is adapted from his new book Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade—and How We Can Fight It (HarperSanFrancisco, © 2007).