TCS Daily

The 21st Century Slave Trade

By Richard S. Williamson - September 27, 2007 12:00 AM

Two hundred years ago William Wilberforce led the successful struggle to end England's lucrative slave trade.

In America, 55 years later it took a bloody civil war and the deep humanity of Abraham Lincoln to end the "peculiar institution."

But slavery has not ended. Slavery exists today: people owning other people, enslaving them, exploiting them.

As Ambassador Mark Lagon said earlier this year, "Every day, all over the world, people are coerced into bonded labor, bought and sold in prostitution, exploited in domestic servitude, enslaved in agricultural work and in factories, and captured to serve unlawfully as child soldiers."

Over 800,000 people are trafficked across borders every year. Half are minors and 80 percent female. Millions more are victims of labor and sexual slavery within national borders. Over 12 million people worldwide are caught in forced labor.

In some parts of the world, parents sell their children into servitude for a few dollars. In Africa boys work in fisheries, quarries, cocoa and rice plantations and markets. Girls work as domestic servants, bakers, in factories and as prostitutes.

Mark Kwadwo is 6 years old and weighs about 30 pounds. He is awoken from his damp dirt floor hut at 5:00 a.m. to help paddle a canoe out into Lake Volta. For hours, as others pull in the fishing net, Mark bails water.

Deprived of schooling and basic necessities, young Mark has been sold into indentured servitude to Kwadwo Takyi for $20 a year. Takyi frequently beats Mark and the other conscripts in his labor camp.

But the new slavery is not limited to the developing world.

Kevin Bales, in his heart-wrenching book Disposable People, tells the story of Seba, a girl raised by her grandmother in Mali. While very young she was taken to Paris by a woman who told her grandmother she would be put in school and learn French.

But in Paris she was not sent to school. She cleaned the house, cooked the meals, cared for the children and washed the baby. Seba was beaten with the broom, kitchen tools and whipped with electric cable.

Once she was stripped naked, hands tied behind her back, and whipped with a wire attached to a broomstick. Chili pepper was rubbed into her wounds and stuck into her vagina until she lost consciousness.

Finally, a neighbor who heard the sounds of abuse called the police and Seba was freed.

And there is sex slavery in America. Last year there was a news story of Brittany, a 16 year old "drugged into oblivion" servicing as many as 17 clients a night sent in by her pimp. This happened in Atlanta where experts estimate half of the street prostitutes are under 18. Most, like Brittany, are runaways whose "rescuers" soon demand a return on their investment and turn them into prostitutes.

According to a University of Pennsylvania study up to 300,000 underage girls are prostituted in America. Among the cities the FBI identified for sexual exploitation of children are Chicago, New York and Miami.

Slavery around the world and in our midst is repugnant, intolerable, and demands more aggressive action. In 2000, federal legislation was enacted making human trafficking a federal crime. Resources have increased for the Department of Homeland Security and FBI to combat human trafficking and sex slavery. Prosecutions are up. The State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons has been elevated in status and its resources increased. Its comprehensive annual Trafficking in Persons Report documents abuse worldwide.

In addition to naming and shaming, America uses the leverage of trade and other sanctions to get countries to combat modern slavery. Prosecution and convictions of human traffickers have increased dramatically in East Asia and elsewhere. This progress, however slight, is encouraging. But more must be done.

We all have a responsibility to work against the modern day slavery. As Wilberforce said over 200 years ago, "We are all guilty - we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others."


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