Modern-Day Slavery in America

By Reinhardt, Emma Dorothy | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview
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Modern-Day Slavery in America

Reinhardt, Emma Dorothy, The World and I

Beatrice was recruited at age 13 to live with an American family, help with the housework, and attend school. Her parents, hoping she would have a better standard of living and education, agreed.

Upon arrival in the United States, however, Beatrice found herself enslaved: locked in a suburban home, working for up to 20 hours a day, and denied education. Regularly, she was forced to hold her hands above her head and kneel on the floor for long periods while being beaten. In 1998, after she had been beaten for over an hour, her screams alarmed the neighbors. The police were called, and Beatrice was discovered.

She had been held captive in the United States for nine years.

Beatrice is from Nigeria and was enslaved in 1989 in New York by a child-welfare worker and her husband. But Dora is from Ghana; Vasantha from Sri Lanka; Chanti from India; Yua Hao from China. They were all enslaved here over the last two decades. Discovered in Washington, D.C., Boston, Berkeley, California, and Bryant, Arkansas, respectively, these victims were enslaved by a World Bank employee, a Boston University student, a landlord, and a television executive.

Incredibly, slavery has returned to our shores. Forced to work for no pay under the threat of violence, a slave is a human being whose time and body are owned by another. Though legally abolished in 1865 in the United States, slavery has not ended here.

Thousands of Beatrices, Doras, Vasanthas, Chantis, and Yua Haos suffer today in America.

Over 27 million people are slaves in the world. In the United States alone, 50,000 women and children are trafficked every year. Thousands of men also suffer as slaves here, but their cases are rarely in the headlines. Behind barred windows, in swanky upscale apartments, in dim- lit basements, hundreds of thousands--women, children, and men--endure slavery.

Americans are shocked and disbelieving. Isn't slavery prohibited?

We are familiar with the concept of trafficking, which we associate with smuggling guns and drugs. Strong civil, human, and women's rights campaigns have informed us about domestic violence in this country, which occurs in small towns, major cities, and places in between. We have learned about antebellum slavery and the philosophies that protected and perpetuated the system. We know many slave owners were once viewed as highly respectable and that they made profits from their slaves. And we were taught that slavery continued on even after it was made illegal.

We must now weave these three concepts into the inconceivable: A complex, transnational, and highly profitable slave trade exists today. Slaves are bought and sold in this country, at this time. Cities all over the world act as the points of transfer, sale, and settlement in this international network. The United States is not spared this evil.


Achara lived in a small village in the mountains of northern Thailand. Though they worked hard, her family never had enough food for the family of eight. Sometimes, Achara's mother would tell her children stories of families who worked hard and had plenty.

When Achara was 12, a businessman came to her village and offered her a well-paying restaurant job in New York City. He guaranteed visas, transportation, and enough money to support herself and help her family. He asked for part of the U.S. $50,000 fee up front. Achara's parents saw this as a great opportunity. The extended family raised U.S. $30,000--a sum greater than any villager could earn in a lifetime.

Within one month, Achara had reached her destination. But rather than finding freedom and prosperity, she was ensnared immediately. She was robbed of her documents, thrown into a small room with 16 other young women, and made to work in a nearby restaurant for12 hours each day. She was told that if she did not show up for work or tried to run away, she would be raped and beaten, and her family back home would be killed.

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