Guarding America's First Right: Freedom from Bondage: The Civil Rights Community Must Respond to the Disturbing Rise in Cases of Involuntary Servitude in the United States

By Sage, Jesse | Civil Rights Journal, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview
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Guarding America's First Right: Freedom from Bondage: The Civil Rights Community Must Respond to the Disturbing Rise in Cases of Involuntary Servitude in the United States


Sage, Jesse, Civil Rights Journal


"YOU CAN CALL ME DAWN," the voice at the other end of the line said. "I am contacting you because there is a woman enslaved in the apartment across the hall from my mother."

Not your everyday phone call, even at the American Anti-Slavery Group. Founded in 1993 to monitor contemporary slavery worldwide, the organization I work for focuses primarily on chattel slavery in North Africa. We publicize the plight of enslaved African women and children, bought and sold like cattle in countries such as Sudan and Mauritania. Advocates for silenced victims in distant countries, we work to make their cases immediate to the international community.

But suddenly slavery itself was immediate. Dawn's mother lived just minutes from our offices in Boston. Dawn explained that a couple from Saudi Arabia with a young son moved in across the hall from her mother. A Thai woman who speaks no English lived with them. "When the couple leave for work, she runs across the hall to my mother's, crying. We can't understand her, but she appears to be the boy's nanny--and she shows signs of physical abuse."

Dawn had gotten our number from Amnesty International (Amnesty, which does not include slavery in its mandate, forwards questions on slavery to us). Her mother feared being part of any official investigation, and refused to contact the police. Dawn was also concerned and would only provide the Saudis' address. "I am afraid to get any more involved. I just want to make sure that this woman gets help."

What to do? Never having handled such a case before, we decided to try to talk to the woman herself. A translator from one of the local language schools kindly volunteered to help, but could not accompany us to the apartment building. She would stand by to talk to the woman via cell phone.

One hour before our noontime visit to the apartment building, Dawn called to report that the woman had fled to the building's parking attendant, begging for help. The police were now investigating, but meanwhile the woman had been returned to the apartment.

Later, I spoke with the police detective assigned to the case, who expressed concern but explained little could be done. The woman's "owner" had legal immigration papers for her, as well as a letter from her husband consenting to his wife's work.

"The woman's account of forced servitude is really shocking, but we have no legal basis for pressing charges," lamented the detective. "She has nowhere to go, so she went back."

New Economy, New Slavery

In 1866, just as the U.S. was completing passage of constitutional measures against slavery, Frederick Douglass presciently noted the tenacity of the nation's peculiar institution. "Slavery, like all other great systems of wrong, founded in the depths of human selfishness, and existing for ages, has not neglected its own conservation," Doug]ass observed. "Today, it is so strong that it could exist, not only without law, but even against law."

Yet even Doug]ass could never have foreseen just how strong slavery would grow. Today, in the year 2000, when slavery is deemed illegal in every country and in numerous international treaties, more people live in bondage worldwide than ever before. And, as new studies indicate, tens of thousands of these victims are enslaved on our shores, in our cities, even in our own backyards.

Using a simple but strict definition of slavery--forced labor for no pay under the threat of violence--sociologist Dr. Kevin Bales estimates that 27 million people live as slaves worldwide. In his groundbreaking new book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Bales advances the thesis that much of contemporary slavery has become a quasi-industrialized institution: a brutal but efficient and profitable process of entrapment, exploitation, and abandonment. Slaves are lured or abducted from their homes, psychologically and physically intimidated, forced to work in de-humanizing conditions, and then discarded when they are too ill to work.

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