Bound Together: Contemporary Slavery and Global Poverty

As individuals, we resolve to do all kinds of things. But it is those commitments we resolve to do as a society which are both more difficult and more meaningful. This decade, let us resolve to end human slavery.
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The New Year has begun and resolutions abound: lose weight, treat our family and friends better, eat more greens. As individuals, we resolve to do all kinds of things. But it is those commitments we resolve to do as a society which are both more difficult and more meaningful. This decade, let us resolve to end human slavery. They did not actually say 'Slavery,' did they? Today, more people than at any other time in human history live in bondage, 27 million worldwide. Although concentrated in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Northern Africa, and Latin America, slavery is a global problem that affects every nation in the world.

According to the United States government, every year more than 14,000 people are trafficked into the United States, forced to into servitude, and often sexually exploited. Contemporary slavery is tied to global poverty, and it is impossible to consider one without the other. As young and desperately poor individuals seek a way out of their current circumstances, they are susceptible to the seduction of charlatans posing as saviors but truly are just slave traders. The current global economic crisis has reinforced the connection between poverty and slavery. The number of those living in poverty, those most susceptible to the siren calls of the slave traders, just keeps growing larger. The most recent estimates from the Census Bureau document over one million more Americans fell into poverty in 2008. Worldwide, the World Bank estimates that 90 million additional people may have fallen into extreme poverty--earning less than $1.25 a day--in 2009.


Several international protocols have been specifically adopted to address human trafficking. They are often poorly enforced and ineffective. Victims often fear coming forward to authorities, afraid of stigma, reprisal, imprisonment, or deportation. Further many trafficking victims are employed in the informal economy as domestic servants. It is more difficult for authorities to monitor individual homes than formal workplaces.

Traffickers and slave owners target and victimize the most vulnerable among us, often preying on children. Children, usually between the ages of 15-18 but as young as 8, have been kidnapped and used as soldiers. Others are stolen from playgrounds so that they can harvest cash crops, hand-weave textiles, operate dangerous equipment, and literally serve as indentured maids in people's homes. Some parents sell their children into slavery for the money. Most of these children, like most trafficking victims, are forced laborers but a tremendous number are also sexually exploited. UNICEF estimates that as many as two-million children are prostituted in the global commercial sex trade every year.


Trafficking and slavery are tied to extreme poverty. Traffickers trick those looking for employment into slavery. They promise an education and stable employment. However, these victims soon find themselves in brothels, as household servants, in factories or in farm fields. Their captors keep them in bondage. Some are literally held with locks and chains. Others are subjected to severe psychological pressure.

The global financial crisis has been a boon to traffickers. As the world's economy contracts, millions find themselves jobless. It has been estimated that over 200 million people could lose their livelihoods in the recession. There may be as many as 113 million in Asia alone. Without employment, these individuals become more vulnerable to traffickers. As more individuals look for outside employment, more may fall prey to the traffickers. The "supply" of victims increases. As prices of commodities collapse, miners, farmers, and other business owners will undoubtedly seek ways to decrease costs. Unscrupulous employers turn to forced labor--children, women, and men to mine, harvest and work, with little or no pay and without the ability to quit. This is particularly appealing to these depraved slave owners because the price to purchase a slave is at an all time low. The average price worldwide of a slave today is $90. Recently Free the Slaves, an international organization working end slavery across the globe, documented the sale of two young men together for the equivalent of $80. The expansion of extreme poverty caused by global financial crisis will further incentivize human trafficking.


Thoughtful and well-implemented governmental policies can slow human trafficking and reduce slavery. Critical components of this strategy include prosecution, protection, and prevention--what the State Department calls the "3 P's". Governments around the world must work together to decrease the incentives that perpetuate these abuses. Let's start with 'prevention.' First we need to stem the "supply" by ameliorating unemployment, poverty, and hunger. If the economies of the world become more prosperous, those seeking to leave their horrific economic conditions will become less and less. Lessening the number of poor in the world will can undermine the "market" for human trafficking.

Prevention is not enough; we also need prosecution and protection policies. Governments should protect those vulnerable to the trafficking from the perpetrators. Government policies, with the funding necessary for enforcement should be passed. These can constrain the demand for and the reliance on trafficking. Governments need to invest in the resources needed to have the means enforcement of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking laws.


The new year is a good time to take stock, look back at the previous years and ahead into the future. The new decade is pregnant with opportunity.

Human trafficking and slavery are corrosive to human society and antithetical to modern ideals. Slaves are victims not only of the perpetrators, who directly exploited them, but of a system that makes servitude possible and in some places acceptable. Poverty exposes millions to threat of human trafficking and slavery. No religious tradition worthy of being called a religion could support this diminishment of the human soul. Every religion speaks through its texts about ameliorating or eliminating poverty. Certainly, this is where we should rise to our calling, engage our deepest ardor and commitment, and resolve together break the bonds of slavery and poverty.

This piece was prepared with Jared Feldman in JCPA's Washington Office.

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