From Sex Workers to Restaurant
Workers, the Global Slave Trade Is Growing
by David Batsone, Sojourners
www.alternet.org, March 15, 2007
A thriving commerce in human beings is
taking place behind the facade of most major cities and towns
in the U.S. and worldwide. Activists are pushing back, but they
This article is an excerpt from David
Batstone's new book, Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave
Trade -- and How We Can Fight It. Learn more about the book and
the campaign it has launched.
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
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.
This article is adapted from David Batsone's
new book Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade --
and How We Can Fight It
David Batsone is a Sojourners contributing
Global Secrets and Lies