Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Modern Slaves

The world suffers global recession, enormous inequity, hunger, deforestation, pollution, climate change, nuclear weapons, terrorism, etc. To those who say we’re not really making progress, many might point to the fact that at least we’ve eliminated slavery.

But sadly that is not the truth.

One hundred forty-three years after passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 60 years after Article 4 of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights banned slavery and the slave trade worldwide, there are more slaves than at any time in human history -- 27 million.

Today’s slavery focuses on big profits and cheap lives. It is not about owning people like before, but about using them as completely disposable tools for making money.

During the four years that Benjamin Skinner researched modern-day slavery, he posed as a buyer at illegal brothels on several continents, interviewed convicted human traffickers in a Romanian prison and endured giardia, malaria, dengue and a bad motorcycle accident.

But Skinner is most haunted by his experience in a brothel in Bucharest, Romania, where he was offered a young woman with Down syndrome in exchange for a used car.

Terrence McNally: What first got you interested in slavery?

Benjamin Skinner: The fuel began before I was born. The abolitionism in my blood began at least as early as the 18th century, when my Quaker ancestors stood on soapboxes in Connecticut and railed against slavery. I had other relatives that weren’t Quaker, but had the same beliefs. My great-great-great-grandfather fought with the Connecticut artillery, believing that slavery was an abomination that could only be overturned through bloodshed.

Yet today, after the deaths of 360,000 Union soldiers, after over a dozen conventions and 300 international treaties, there are more slaves than at any point in human history.

TM: Is that raw numbers or as a percentage of the population?

BS: I want to be very clear what I mean when I say the word slavery. If you look it up in Webster's dictionary, the first definition is "drudgery or toil." It's become a metaphor for undue hardship, because we assume that once you legally abolish something, it no longer exists. But as a matter of reality for up to 27 million people in the world, slaves are those forced to work, held through fraud, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence. It's a very spare definition.

TM: Whose definition is that?

BS: Kevin Bales's. [His Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy was nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, and he is the president of Free the Slaves ] I'm glad you asked because he's not given enough credit. He originally came up with the number 27 million, and it's subsequently been buttressed by international labor organization studies. Governments will acknowledge estimates of some 12.3 million slaves in the world, but NGOs in those same countries say the numbers are more than twice as high.

Kevin did a lot of the academic work that underpinned my work. I wanted to go out and get beyond the numbers, to show what one person's slavery meant. In the process of doing that, I met hundreds of slaves and survivors.

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.

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