Civil Liberties

The New Old Slavery

The trafficking of human beings is a polite phrase for slavery -- not the abstract kind, wherein we call a banal job we need to help pay the rent "wage slavery," but the real kind, where one is kept by force, can't escape, and is bought and sold.
"Turning countries into labor camps, modern slavers in drag as champions of freedom..."
-- from "Call It Democracy," Bruce Cockburn, 1985


"Once a drug is sold it's gone, but a girl can be sold over and over before she collapses, has gone mad, committed suicide, or died of disease." -- Wash. State Senator Jeri Costa, quoting a British Columbia man convicting of trafficking

The lyrics in many of Cockburn's political songs of the Central America-era mid-80's are eerily prescient nearly two decades later. And so it was that I found myself last weekend passing up one employer's request to fly me to San Francisco to cover a massive demonstration against our latest threat of imperial war, and also, on Saturday, driving by a 5,000-strong local demonstration here in Seattle, the third such large local protest in three weeks.

I passed them by because I spent a good portion of last weekend visiting a political prisoner -- there's no other phrase for it, really -- in Seattle's INS "detention facility," where he has been imprisoned for over a year with no charges. About that, more in a few days. I spent the rest of this extraordinarily grim weekend on the campus of the University of Washington, attending a conference entitled "Globalization, Justice, and the Trafficking of Women and Children."

The trafficking of human beings is a polite phrase for slavery; not the abstract kind, wherein we call a banal job we need to help pay the rent "wage slavery," but the real kind, where one is kept by force, has no possibility of escape, and is, in fact, bought and sold -- i.e., "trafficked."

It's a scourge of the human condition that is enjoying a modern renaissance thanks to technology -- particularly global travel and the ability to buy and sell over the Internet -- and globalization. It is, in fact, not too much of a stretch to consider this new form of slavery not only a consequence of the globalization structures Cockburn sang about in 1985, but an inevitable outcome of it.

The Seattle conference brought together a number of notable figures in the struggle against trafficking, including people from across Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, from the United Nations, and Ambassador Nancy Ely-Raphel, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in the U.S. State Department. Ely-Raphel's office is a new one, formed last year as a consequence of a 2000 law passed by Congress called the "Trafficking Victims' Protection Act." The Act created Ely-Raphel's State Department office and obligated it to produce annual reports assessing how much different countries do to combat the exporting, transiting, and importing of human beings. Each country is assigned to one of three tiers based on governments' efforts and effectiveness, similar to reports that rate human rights abuses.

That law, and some high-level Bush Administration harrumphing in Spring 2001 about Sudanese Christians seized and sold into slavery, are about as much as the United States has done on the topic recently. But modern slavery is scarcely confined to the Sudan, or even to Africa, and it is not just a consequence of brutal civil wars or the AIDS pandemic. The trafficked -- almost all women and children, and almost all of them impoverished and ethnic or religious minorities in lands that are already poor -- are one more commodity, fed into the great global marketplace due to either their ability to work for a master or to be a sexual slave. Or both. And once sold, they can and are shipped anywhere in the world. Including here.

It's impossible, for obvious reasons, to guess just how many people find themselves in this condition; it's clearly in the millions, and numbers people on all continents, including North America. Perhaps the biggest myth is that trafficking's victims are abductees, snatched, as in the Sudan, as the spoils of war or the victims of organized crime. Far more common are people who go willingly into situations whose true nature becomes apparent only when it's too late. In some cases, teens and young adults may even know the risks, or some of them, but are willing anyway to take the chance that it will be better than what they are leaving behind.

If it's not, there's no going back. Just as 17th century Africans were controlled by being shipped to a different continent, where a return home was impossible, one of the basics of 21st century slavery is moving people to other parts of the world; thus, as one conference speaker described, India has slaves from the Maldives and the Maldives has slaves from India, and in both cases, the hapless victims don't speak the language, can't risk contacting often corrupt police, and have neither resources nor anywhere to run should they escape their immediate confines.

Globalization has created a spectrum of such refugees, people either seeking a way out of the grinding poverty of their homes or a way to be able to afford the luxury goods globalization incessantly parades before them on television. Everything from sweatshops to the mail order bride industry is predicated on such yearnings, and the question of free will is often a slippery one. In the case of a "closed" brothel in Yokohama, where the women are not allowed out of the building and the new ones are kept chained, or in the case of a locked sweatshop in East Los Angeles, filled with Vietnamese immigrants in debt bondage, there is little doubt that a crime and a horrific abuse of human rights is being committed across international boundaries. How much different is the average Mexican farm worker, forced out of his village by the NAFTA-induced collapse of local farms, with no jobs in Mexico's cities and no way to approach American authorities if, once lured north to the U.S. by the promise of a job, his employer cheats him out of his sub-standard pay? Few would call that outright slavery, but the gradations between the lettuce picker and the brothel prisoner are infinite and continuous.

Perhaps the most glaring failure in U.S. policy on these issues is that trafficking victims, whether they come to American territory or stay here willingly or not, are treated as criminals, not as victims. They are detained for having no or false passports or visas, for entering the country illegally or working illegally or staying too long, with no investigation into whether any of it was their idea or their choice or not, and no support or assistance if it was not.

At the local level, states are beginning to enact reforms such as requiring mail order bride businesses to provide, on request, information on potential husbands' marital or criminal histories. These are good steps, but only tiny pieces of the problem. In that case, a clean record is of little consolation to the Hungarian bride who suddenly finds herself alone in a Midwest suburb with an abusive American husband who literally purchased her, and who acts like it.

Beyond the lack of legal reforms, however, there lies another level at which the United States bears more than a little responsibility: the poverty and the labor market imperatives, and selling of dreams of the ubiquitous American materialism, of the free market policies the United States champions. Those policies are creating ever-wider gaps between rich and poor, not just in the United States but around the world. That widening gap means an increase both in the number of people so desperate they are willing to sell themselves or their children, and the number of able and willing buyers. As with sex industries, the focus of reformers and social service agencies alike is almost always on the victims; little attention is paid to the demand side of supply and demand. In the world America wants, everything is for sale; is it that surprising that, more and more, people are now being sold? Or that other people see nothing wrong with making the purchase?

The most disappointing part of the Seattle conference was that so little of it was devoted to solutions; the bulk was spent trying to describe the enormous scope of the problem. Ultimately, as with the War On Drugs, trying to stop the supply side is virtually impossible; there is too much poverty, too many corrupt government officials and police, too much money to be made. If the logical outcome of a world where everything is for sale is a store in the mall where you can select your new Chinese, Indian, Sudanese, Ukranian, or Filipina slave -- certified disease-free, with complimentary gift wrapping -- then the only way to prevent it is to draw a line somewhere.

Ideally, the line ought to be drawn where no person, anywhere in the world, should be condemned to poverty or to a situation they cannot leave. Legally, at least, the bottom line is far less beneficial, but at least it provides that human beings ought not be bought or sold.

But the reality is that more and more humans are being trafficked, and that it is tolerated so long as it is kept out of sight. And it is; I've been working for nine months on the story involving the INS detainee I visited last weekend, and I've yet to see another visitor to the INS jail that isn't non-white. Most of us don't speak other languages, don't hang out in grueling workplaces, and do, in fact, look the other way. It's none of our business.

Modern slavery is, in fact, a business -- a big one. And the more that the United States creates or inflames wars abroad; the more that preventable disease ravages whole continents; the more that those continents' peoples yearn for consumer goods they can never afford; and the more that we encourage the notion that everything can and should be for sale, the more that modern slavers -- champions of freedom, all -- will do a booming and ever-expanding business.