THOSE WHO WANT to make lots of money and don't care about breaking the law to do it have three main options: they can deal in drugs, deal in guns or deal in humans beings. Of these dubious but lucrative businesses, trafficking in humans is the fastest growing. Estimates put the number of slaves in the world at between 12 million (the United Nations figure) and 27 million (the figure offered by Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves. an organization committed to ending global slavery). Recently, the Vatican declared that human trafficking in our time is a greater scourge than the transatlantic slave trade of the 18th century.
A few years ago, Representative Dan Burton (R., Ind.) opened a congressional subcommittee hearing on human trafficking by stating, "It is hard to believe in the 21st century that we are even talking about this." Button's comment reflects the surprise that most people experience when hearing about contemporary human slavery. After all, the enslavement of human beings--specifically, forced prostitution of women and children--seems like something of another time. Most of us assume that such moments in history have passed, that the world as a whole has matured, gotten better, and that horrors like chattel slavery are a relic of a less civilized era.
Our surprise at discovering the scourge of present-day human trafficking betrays certain presumptions about our own goodness, presumptions that conceal the realities of the world we've made. In truth, rather than some aberration, slavery may be one of the most representative consequences of global capitalism. In the same way that chattel slavery epitomized the period of colonization, so contemporary human trafficking epitomizes the political, economic and social realities of the world in which we find ourselves. Economic inequality, war, political instability, systemic injustice, inadequate education, media penetration, migration patterns, corrupt governments, environmental disasters and other factors related to globalization contribute to the conditions necessary for human trafficking.
Global capitalism's explosive growth has brought unimaginable wealth to some parts of the world, while displacing local economies and emaciating traditional forms of life as transnational corporations devour resources in search of greater and greater profits. In communities that for generations esteemed virtues that transcended material accumulation, those virtues have given way to the almighty dollar. Increasingly, anything can be commodified, and if one has only flesh to sell, so be it; what was once morally unimaginable is now a $13 billion industry. Further, technology shrinks the world, reducing conceptions of happiness to material prosperity and creating, along with actual poverty, something called "relative destitution," the perception of poverty experienced when images of decadent wealth get broadcast all over the world.
The conditions that make human trafficking possible and profitable arise not just in the poor countries that supply slaves but wherever the demand for unprotected labor is outmatched only by the wealth and greed of those who pay for it. These dynamics produce a deadly combination: desperation and profiteering. When one is face-to-face with obvious evil, it is easy to demonize, scapegoating a few for the moral peace of mind of the many. However, doing so detracts from the systemic realities that make us all culpable. Says Stefano Volpicelli, who for years has studied and fought slavery: "Trafficking is not born from the minds of inherently malicious individuals whose only aspiration is to harm and degrade women. Without excusing vile behavior, it is a phenomenon in which both victim and perpetrator are born from the same scourge of utter desperation." When we view the world through the complex matrix of globalization, we begin to see how human trafficking has come to be at home in our world; or more precisely, how we have come to be at home in a world of human trafficking. …