There Are More Slaves Today Than at Any Time in Human History
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TM: As an investigative reporter rather than an academic, you take us where the trades are made, the suffering takes place and the survivors eke out their existences.
BS: In an underground brothel in Bucharest, I was offered a young woman with the visible effect of Down syndrome. One of her arms was covered in slashes, where I can only assume she was trying to escape daily rape the only way she knew how. That young woman was offered to me in trade for a used car.
TM: This was a Romanian used car?
BS: Yes, and I knew that I could get that car for about 1,500 euros. While that may sound like a very low price for human life, consider that five hours from where I live in New York -- a three-hour flight down to Port au Prince, Haiti, and an hour from the airport -- I was able to negotiate for a 10-year-old girl for cleaning and cooking, permanent possession and sexual favors. What do you think the asking price was?
TM: I don't know ... $7,500?
BS: They asked for $100, and I talked them down to $50. Now to put that in context: Going back to the time when my abolitionist ancestors were on their soapbox, in 1850, you could buy a healthy grown male for the equivalent of about $40,000.
TM: When I first read such big numbers, I was shocked.
BS: This is not to diminish the horrors that those workers would face, nor to diminish their dehumanization one bit. It was an abomination then as it is today. But in the mid-19th century, masters viewed their slaves as an investment.
But here's the thing: When a slave costs $50 on the street in broad daylight in Port au Prince -- by the way, this was in a decent neighborhood, everybody knew where these men were and what they did -- such people are, to go back to Kevin's term, eminently disposable in the eyes of their masters.
TM: If my reading is correct, the biggest concentrations of the slave trade are in Southeast Asia and portions of Latin America?
BS: If you were to plot slaves on the map, you'd stick the biggest number of pins in India, followed by Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan. There are arguably more slaves In India than the rest of the world combined.
And yet, if you look at international efforts or American pressure, India is largely let off the hook because Indian federal officials claim, "We have no slaves. These are just poor people. And these exploitive labor practices," -- if you're lucky enough to get that term out of them -- "are a byproduct of poverty."
Let me be clear, the end of slavery cannot wait for the end of poverty. Slavery in India is primarily generational debt bondage, people whose grandparents took a debt.
TM: To go back to the definition: Forced to work against their will with no escape.
BS: Held through fraud under threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. These are people that cannot walk away.
I stumbled upon a fellow in a quarry in Northern India who'd been enslaved his entire life. He had assumed that slavery at birth. His grandfather had taken a debt of 62 cents, and three generations and three slave masters later, the principal had not been paid off one bit. The family was illiterate and innumerate. This fellow, who I call Gonoo -- he asked me to protect his identity -- was still forced to work, held through fraud under threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence.