Slavery. The very word conjures up images of pain and suffering, oppression and subjugation, sin! More than 500,000 black Africans were kidnapped, sold like livestock and forced to perform backbreaking work. Families were torn apart as young children were removed from their parents and husbands and wives were separated. Slaves were forced to endure beating, rape, castration, maiming and murder. There was no legal recourse because slaves were not human beings; they were private property. The nation was at an impasse. There would be no peaceful resolution. The end of slavery came through the death of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians during the Civil War.
Today, most Americans believe that the blood split during the Civil War cleansed our nation of this evil and assigned slavery to an ugly page in history. While chattel slavery, where ownership is maintained through violence, no longer exists here, there are still slaves in the United States. The most common form is forced labor, where people are promised good jobs but instead are enslaved. Organized criminal gangs run human trafficking operations. Our government estimates that 50,000 people per year are brought into the United States from the developing world and are forced into prostitution, domestic work, garment sewing or agricultural work to pay exorbitant “travel expenses.” Living in fear and ignorance, unable to speak the language, these terrified individuals wait to be freed.
But slavery extends beyond our borders. There are more people enslaved today—27 million—than at any time in history. The classic form of chattel slavery still persists. The humanity crisis in Sudan is, in part, due to a revival of a racially-based slave trade where armed militias raid villages for slaves. In Mauritania, Arab-Berber masters hold as many as one million black Africans as inheritable property as a result of the chattel system established 800 years ago.
The most common form of slavery, however, is debt bondage. In poverty-ravaged areas, many families must borrow simply to survive. Human beings are used as collateral for these loans and, unlike most industrialized nations where debt dies with the debtor, debts are often inherited and generations are ensnared in slavery. In countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, it is estimated that 15-20 million people are enslaved to pay off debts that may go back generations.
In South East Asia and Eastern Europe the most common form is sex slavery, where girls and young women are kidnapped, lured by offers of good jobs or forced into prostitution to earn income for the family. If they resist, captors will use rape, beatings and humiliation to break them down. Often, these victims are moved frequently and kept isolated with no documentation. They become sex slaves for tourists.
The tragedy of slavery continues to be multi-layered and immense. The slaves of the past were seen as valuable commodities. Today, with booming populations and staggering poverty, there is an unending supply. Slaves are cheap. They are used then discarded. Slavery is efficient and profitable. It is simply good business.
The lesson of history is that it takes both individuals and governments to speak out and act against injustice. Frederick Douglass summed things up in 1857: “The whole history of progress of human liberty shows that . . . if there is no struggle, there is no progress . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will . . .” While our government passed the Victims of Human Trafficking Act (2000), much more is needed. People of conscience need to awaken to denounce and act against all forms of modern slavery.
Each of us can make ethical decisions to help stop slavery. Throughout the world, millions of children and adults are given or stolen to work as slaves in factories, mines and fields producing items for Western consumption, such as chocolate from the Ivory Coast, sugar from the Dominican Republic, carpets from Nepal and cigarettes from India. While boycotts can actually make things worse, we can buy fair trade products guaranteed to be slave-free and give producers a fair price. We can invest in companies that do not use forced labor. We need to hear the call to abolish slavery today. We need to become morally outraged. We need to act!
Scott Key is a faculty member at Fresno Pacific University whose Ph.D. is in Public Policy Analysis from the University of Illinois. At FPU, he teaches in the School of Humanities, Religion, and Social Sciences as well as the School of Education.