Slavery’s staying power

E. Benjamin Skinner is the author of "A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery."

One hot june day in 2006, I saw what slavery really meant. In a rundown mansion in a slum of Bucharest, Romania, a pimp offered to sell me a young woman he described as “a blond.” She had bleached hair, hastily applied makeup, and she apparently suffered from Down syndrome. On her right arm were at least 10 angry, fresh slashes where, I can only assume, she had attempted suicide. The pimp claimed that he made 200 euros per night renting her out to local clients. He offered to sell her outright to me in exchange for a used car.

It wasn’t the first time I had encountered a slave in bondage. It wasn’t even the first time I had been offered a slave for sale. Over five years on five continents, I had infiltrated trafficking networks and witnessed other negotiations to buy and sell human beings. Worldwide, I’d met more than 100 current and former slaves.

Many people are surprised to learn that there are still slaves. Many imagined that slavery died along with the 360,000 Union soldiers whose blood fertilized the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. Many thought that slavery was brought to an end around the world when most countries outlawed it in the 19th century.


But, in fact, there are more slaves today than at any point in history. Although a precise census is impossible, as most masters keep their slaves hidden, baseline estimates from United Nations and other international researchers range from 12 million to 27 million slaves worldwide. The U.S. State Department estimates that from 600,000 to 800,000 people -- primarily women and children -- are trafficked across national borders each year, and that doesn’t count the millions of slaves who are held in bondage within their own countries.

Let me be clear: By “slaves” I mean, very simply, those who are forced to work, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence. That is the nice, neat, horrible definition I have used since I began studying the subject in 2001. It was brought home to me more vividly than ever by the tears of that young woman in Bucharest.

In the United States today, we tend to use the word “slave” loosely. Merriam-Webster offers as its first definition of the word, “drudgery; toil.” Well-intentioned activists will say that a worker at a shoe factory in Indonesia is “paid a slave wage” of $1.25 per hour, despite the fact the worker can walk away from the job at any time. An investment banker in New York will claim to be “worked like a slave” because, despite his six-figure salary, he is required to work up to 18 hours a day on occasion. During his last few years with Warner Bros. Records, Prince wore the word “slave” scrawled across his face to protest a binding contract he couldn’t get out of -- even though it paid him $10-million advances for each album.

But that’s not what slavery is, as Rambho Kumar can attest. Kumar was born into wilting poverty in a village in Bihar, the poorest state in India, the country with more slaves than any other, according to U.N. estimates. In 2001, desperate to keep him and his five brothers from starving, his mother accepted 700 rupees ($15) as an advance from a local trafficker, who promised more money once 9-year-old Rambho started working many miles away in India’s carpet belt.

After he received Rambho from the trafficker, the loom owner treated his new acquisition like any other low-value industrial tool. He never allowed Rambho and the other slaves to leave the loom, forcing them to work for 19 hours a day, starting at 4 in the morning. The work itself tore into Rambho’s small hands, and when he whimpered in pain, the owner’s brother stuck his finger in boiling oil to cauterize the wound -- and then told him to get back to work. When other boys attempted escape or made a mistake in the intricate designs of the rugs, which were destined for Western markets, the owner beat them savagely.

On July 12, 2005, local police, in coordination with activists supported by Free the Slaves, an organization based in Washington, liberated Rambho and nine other emaciated boys.

I’ve met and talked with slaves and former slaves like Rambho in a dozen countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Romania, India, Sudan and Haiti. The International Labor Organization of the United Nations estimates that in Asia alone, there are about 10 million slaves.

Even in the United States, low-end Justice Department figures estimate that there are about 50,000 people languishing in hidden bondage at any one time. On March 4, for instance, two south Florida women were convicted on charges of enslaving and torturing a teenage Haitian girl named Simone Celestine. The two women face 10 years in prison. Celestine was freed by the FBI last year after being held as a domestic slave for six years, during which time she said she was beaten with closed fists, forced to shower outside with a garden hose, rented to other homes and not allowed to attend school.

Celestine’s case is eerily similar to that of Williathe Narcisse, a courageous young woman I got to know after she escaped a life of domestic slavery in suburban Miami. Narcisse, who was 12 when she was freed in 1999, had been smuggled into the U.S. from Haiti to work as a domestic servant. During her three years in slavery, she was required to keep the family’s home spotless, eat garbage and sleep on the floor. She was repeatedly raped by the family’s adult son.

In its first term, the Bush administration spoke out strongly against human trafficking, laying out the most aggressive anti-slavery agenda since Reconstruction. But politics hamstrung its implementation. Pressed by a coalition of academic feminists and evangelical conservatives, American officials focused mainly on eliminating prostitution, despite overwhelming evidence that, worldwide, more than 90% of modern-day slaves are not held in commercial sexual slavery.

Before his reelection, President Bush spoke frequently about slavery, including two rousing speeches he gave before the U.N. General Assembly. But in each case, the president only detailed his concern for those in the commercial sex industry, never mentioning debt bondage (in which a person is forced into slavery in order to pay off an initial debt) or labor trafficking. Over the last two years, the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons has dedicated four times as much of its budget to fighting sex slavery as it did to combating other forms of slavery.

“It is a vicious myth that women and children who work as prostitutes have voluntarily chosen such a life for themselves,” asserted a 2005 State Department fact sheet. Thus the victimization of Ashley Alexandra Dupre, the high-priced call girl frequented by Eliot Spitzer, who until Monday was New York’s governor, is equated to the slavery of the young woman in the Bucharest brothel.

Even though there are more slaves in the world today than ever, as a percentage of world population, there are fewer than ever. In a generation, bondage could be eradicated. But for this to happen, the U.S. must lead the way.

First, however, it must define the terms carefully. A current legislative fight is underway about just what slavery means. Over the objections of a few anti-slavery stalwarts in the Justice Department, the House of Representatives passed a bill in December that expands the current anti-trafficking legislation to cover most forms of prostitution, coerced or not. If approved in its current form by the Senate and signed by the president, the law will no longer address slavery exclusively and will instead become a federal mandate to fight prostitution on a broad scale.

Prostitution is always degrading, and it is often brutal -- but it is not always slavery. Equating the scourge of slavery with run-of-the-mill, non-coerced prostitution is not only misleading, it will weaken the world’s efforts to end real forced labor and human trafficking.

Slavery in all its forms is a crime against humanity. Rambho’s bondage is no more or less tolerable than that of the young woman offered to me in Bucharest. Both are abominations, and both are our collective burden to abolish.