Slaves are cheap these days. Their price is the lowest it's been
in about 4,000 years. And right now the world has a glut of human
slaves - 27 million by conservative estimates and more than at any
time in human history.
Although now banned in every country, slavery has boomed in the
past 50 years as the global population has exploded. A billion
people scrape by on $1 a day. That extreme poverty combined with
local government corruption and a global economy that leaps national
boundaries has produced a surge in the number of slaves - even
though in the developed world, that word conjures up the 19th
century rather than the evening news.
"For an American audience, their conceptualization of slavery is
locked into a picture from the past," says Kevin Bales, president of
Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net), a nonprofit in Washington.
"It's fixed in the slavery of the deep South and it's about African-
Americans being enslaved on plantations with chains and whips and so
Modern-day slavery has little of the old South. Of those 27
million, the majority are bonded laborers in India, Pakistan,
Bangladesh, and Nepal - workers who have given their bodies as
collateral for debts that never diminish no matter how many years,
or sometimes generations, the enslaved labor on. Cooking the books
is an early lesson for slaveholders.
Yet despite this new largely unacknowledged slavery epidemic, Dr.
Bales is optimistic. While the real number of slaves is the largest
there has ever been, he says, it is also probably the smallest
proportion of the world population ever in slavery. Today, he adds,
we don't have to win the legal battle; there's a law against it in
every country. We don't have to win the economic argument; no
economy is dependent on slavery (unlike in the 19th century, when
whole industries could have collapsed). And we don't have to win the
moral argument; no one is trying to justify it any more.
The fact that it's still thriving, he explains, comes down
principally to ignorance about the institution and lack of resources
directed at eradicating it.
Lack of public awareness is strikingly apparent in developed
countries, where few are conscious that it is not exclusively a
Although the numbers are small relative to the worldwide
challenge, in the developed world slavery happens uncomfortably
close to home. For instance, between 14,000 and 17,500 people are
trafficked into the United States annually, according to the US
government, most forced into the sex trade, domestic servitude, or
agricultural labor. At any one time, between 52,000 and 87,000 are
in bondage. And much of that is in plain view, in towns and cities
across the country, experts say. People simply don't recognize it.
In June, an Indian domestic in Brookline, Mass., won a court case
against an Omani couple who had barred her from leaving their
apartment unescorted for more than a year, forcing her to look after
their four children, cook, and clean without proper pay or meals. An
alert neighbor who caught wind of her plight helped her escape.
But that is the exception, suggests Tommy Calvert of American
Anti-Slavery Group in Boston. "Law enforcement and legal
professionals don't always identify a victim of slavery as such."
And the public is even less likely to recognize the signs.
Last month, the State Department issued a fact sheet urging
citizens "to help end modern-day slavery" and warned "it may even be
happening in their own backyards."
It's where domestic violence was 35 years ago, Bales say. No one
talked about it, no shelters existed, and no one had written a
pamphlet laying out what it looked like.
That's about to change. A pamphlet on slavery is in the works,
says Bales, who hopes to get it distributed to neighborhood watch
groups around the US before the end of the year, if funding comes