THE BUSINESS OF
AND HOW TO STOP IT
by Andrew Mersmann
It is probably safe to say that for most of us, in our day-to-day lives of work and social obligations, the thought of slavery does not often arise. When it may creep into conversation, it would likely be in the context of history, perhaps reparations, or a sociological look at the horrors of the past. The reality that modern-day slavery is happening right now, in the countries we visit, and in our own backyards, will shock and stun most people.
The United States' Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) describes the harrowing world of compelled service using a number of different terms: involuntary servitude, slavery, debt bondage, and forced labor. Under the TVPA, individuals may be trafficking victims regardless of whether they once consented, participated in a crime as a direct result of being trafficked, were transported into the exploitative situation, or were simply born into a state of servitude. While the word "traffic" seems to imply this is a crime of smuggling or forcibly moving a person from one place to another, that is not the case. At the heart of this phenomenon are the myriad forms of enslavement—not the activities involved in international transportation.
Trafficking refers to several situations: forced child or adult labor, sex trafficking of children or adults, bonded labor, debt bondage among migrant laborers, involuntary domestic servitude, and child soldiers. Control and exploitation are the primary attributes of the epidemic, and it is annually a multi-billion-dollar industry. It is believed, by a conservative estimate, that there are more than 27 million people enslaved right now around the world—more slaves today than at any other time in history. In the United States, 150,000 children are exploited by the sex trade every year. It is a supply and demand business, and as long as there is demand for less-than-minimum wage labor, and a demand for non-consensual sex trade, human beings will continue to be bought and sold.
The reason it grows as a problem instead of being stopped is because human life can be cheap and disposable. In 1850, a slave in the American South cost the equivalent, in today's currency, of about $40,000. Today, a slave can be had for about 90 bucks, and there are millions of economically and socially vulnerable people that some would consider viable stock.
Because they are, essentially, disposable and easily replaced, if slaves become ill, injured, outlive their usefulness and profitability, or become a burden to the slaveholder, they are routinely dumped or killed.
The largest global industries that profit from the enslavement and forced work of people are the same as ever: agriculture, mining, the garment industry, and prostitution. There is a fairly good chance that the cell phone you use every day, the imported fruits and vegetables you eat, perhaps the sneakers on your feet, and the diamonds you wear or covet, were brought into the commerce stream by someone who was not working of their own free will. The issue isn't all movie-of-the-week drama with violence and force. In addition to those very real incidents, some are coerced by seemingly wonderful yet fraudulent job offers or promises of free transport to other countries, where once they arrive, they are kept in physical and/or financial bondage until they can pay back exorbitant travel costs or rents or other "fees" they incurred and supposedly owe a "boss." The cycle is unbreakable since the salaries paid are so paltry, so there will never be a way out of the debt.
WHAT IS BEING DONE TO STOP SLAVERY
Sufficiently horrified by the actualities of the situation, a move toward personal and social action is encouraged by knowing, and supporting what others are doing about this issue. Corporations large and small are taking a stand with their own business practices, and even more far-reaching, advocating within their industries for more universal compliance with anti-slavery movements.
Starting at the top of international relations, the United Nations has a very forward-thinking program called UN-GIFT (the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking, www.ungift.org) that has educational resources and tools to help people, as well as information on the 140 organizations, businesses, and nations that have signed the "Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons." Some notable signatories are UNICEF, the International Labor Organization, International Organization for Migration, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, and others.
As a crime, human trafficking is second only to the drug trade and is in a tie with illegal arms deals for profitability for criminals. The US Department of State's Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons (www.state.gov/g/tip) leads our nation's fight against slavery overseas and here at home, since the United States is one of the world's largest consumers, for lack of a better word, of slaves. The Office pursues policies, partnerships, and practices that uphold the "3P" paradigm of protecting victims, preventing trafficking, and prosecuting traffickers.
There are also corporations taking the lead on advocacy. The Body Shop (www.thebodyshop-usa.com) has one of the most conspicuous campaigns against sex trafficking of children and young people, with petitions, educational materials, a charitably focused skincare product called "Soft Hands Kind Heart," and proceeds donated to ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes. www.ecpatusa.org).
The information and document search service LexisNexis (www.lexisnexis.com) has a Rule of Law Resource Center specifically focused on human trafficking, and has also teamed with the Polaris Project (www.polarisproject.org), one of the leading organizations crusading for a world without slavery, to operate the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and its 24-hour hotline where people can report abuse or connect with support organizations (1-888-3737-888).
The fortunes of Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (www.gatesfoundation.org) are put to amazing use for charitable causes around the world, and putting an end to human trafficking is one of their priorities; Manpower (www.manpower.com) employment services campaigns hard for zero tolerance for traffickers; CNN (www.thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com) has a dedicated "Freedom Project" and uses their global voice to educate and affirm the hard work of anti-slavery advocates.
Carlson (www.carlson.com), the company that owns Radisson, Country Inns & Suites, and other hospitality groups, is leading the charge within the travel and tourism industry. They have committed their company to The Code (www.thecode.org), a way for travel companies to do business that takes responsibility for protecting against human trafficking. Carlson has led by example and motivated nearly 1,000 other tourism providers to sign on.
Perhaps the pinnacle of visibility and global reach is MTV Networks with their MTV EXIT (www.mtvexit.org) campaign to end exploitation and trafficking. Targeting global youth—many of them extremely vulnerable—and using high-profile international bands and music videos gets the word and warnings out at a grassroots level. The website is in 29 languages, so its effectiveness is broader than most.