Owning People

How slavery continues to thrive in modern America

When people consider human trafficking or modern slavery, many conjure images of teenage girls held captive in brothels in Thailand. Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net) who’s an authority in human trafficking, has interviewed young women there.

He previously described to CityBeat how he secured the “services” of two sex slaves in Thailand (see “Of Human Bondage,” issue of Feb. 13, 2008). He wanted to learn more about their situation but would never be permitted to conduct an interview.

Bales worked through a local aid worker trusted by the brothel owner to get permission to take two girls off-site, ostensibly to have sex with him and his wife at their hotel. The “wife,” another researcher fluent in the local language and customs, was able to explain to the girls that all they really wanted to do was talk.

After getting over their initial fear, the girls asked to go to a temple so they could pray that they wouldn’t get AIDS. Later, the girls talked about their bondage in great detail, which made it hard for Bales to return them.

He had no choice, however — the aid worker who vouched for him would be killed if the girls weren’t returned at the prescribed time.

Though not as dramatic as the Thailand story, slavery also exists in the United States. Bales attempts to define and understand it in his new book, The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today, co-authored by Ron Soodalter.

“The simple truth is humans keep slaves; we always have,” the authors write. “To understand this, we must know what it is in the human heart that makes slavery possible.”

The authors interviewed slaves, slave masters, rescuers, counselors, doctors, police and government officials.

“Some of these stories broke our hearts, sometimes the excuses and rationalizations made us boil with anger and sometimes we met real unsung heroes who gave us hope that America can put an end to slavery once and for all,” Bales and Soodalter write.

They examine the kinds of slavery most commonly found in the U.S.: domestic servitude (maids, nannies), agriculture labor and forced prostitution. Sometimes slavery is motivated by saving money — not paying a housekeeper, for example — and there are big profits in exploiting people in industries such as agriculture.

“The buyers — fast-food giants such as McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell and Burger King and market corporations like Ship Rite, Wal-Mart and Costco — are dictating the prices they are willing to pay for tomatoes and other crops,” the authors write. “The buyers have turned their corporate backs on the small growers who supplied them faithfully for years. … These mega-buyers have decided to work with large suppliers, who can provide them ready, uniform, year-round supplies of product.”

These companies often ignore the human cost of meeting their profit and product needs.

Detailing cases of farmers subcontracted to provide fresh produce, Bales and Soodalter explain how foreign-born nationals living in poverty are lured to the U.S. with the promise of good wages. Upon arrival, the workers frequently are brutalized by traffickers in order to break their will, confuse them and convince them that running away means death for them or their family members. Locked in barracks, held under armed guard, deprived of food and medical care, these people have no control over their lives.

“Most Americans’ idea of slavery comes right out of Roots — the chains, the whip in the overseer’s hand, the crack of the auctioneer’s gavel,” Bales and Soodalter write. “That was one form of bondage. The slavery plaguing America today takes a different form, but make no mistake: It is real slavery.

“What do acrobats, naked gardeners, hair braiding, boys’ choirs, deaf Mexicans and the shirt on your back all have in common? In a word: slavery…There is no lack of ingenuity on the part of traffickers in exploiting their victims.”

The authors give a “conservative estimate” of 50,000 U.S. citizens in bondage, calling the phenomenon “America’s dirty little secret.”

Bales and Soodalter make no allowance for blaming the victims. Law enforcement officials looking at people within the context of a perceived crime — prostitution or panhandling — usually ignore the circumstances.

“In many individual states, the victims are seen as criminals,” the authors write.

And many people who dismiss the possibility of slavery claim that slaves could seek help or run away if they really wanted out.

“If the safety of your own family back home is on the line or you already know the beating you’ll get, you keep quiet,” the authors write. “To see the slave next door, we have to look past the silence and offer that hand or word that could be the key to someone’s freedom.

“We have to be just as observant and imaginative as the criminals if we are going to recognize the slave next door, singing to us in the choir, selling us trinkets for a dollar or braiding our hair.”

That process begins with learning what slavery looks like today. Know the warning signs. Question what doesn’t look quite right. Buy goods that are certified “Free Trade” to ensure that slave labor wasn’t used in their manufacture. Challenge local law enforcement to care about slavery. Support organizations fighting to free slaves.

“If we want to eliminate slavery from this country, we must do it ourselves, one citizen at a time and working together,” Bales and Soodalter write. “It is within our grasp to end slavery in America once and for all, but each of us has to reach for it; if we wait for it to be handed to us, people will live and die in slavery for many years to come.”