An End to Slavery? Not For the World’s 27 Million Slaves

27 million.

According to Kevin Bales, President and Co-Founder of Free the Slaves, this is the number of victims of human trafficking victims and survivors around the world today.

The term and the phenomenon of human trafficking are replete with common myths that often do not correlate with their legal meaning. Colloquially, human trafficking evokes an image of poor women from developing countries who are forcefully smuggled across international borders to perform illicit work. They are shackled, bound, chained, and hidden. In fact, human trafficking is a very specific legal term codified and defined in Title 18, Chapter 77 of the United States Criminal Code. The Department of Justice enforces these statutes through United States Attorneys Offices and the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, and attorneys from these two entities often collaborate as co-counsel on cases. In 2007, a specialized and expert Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit was created within the Criminal Section, which is where I spent my 1L summer as an intern.

Bales estimates that there are 40,000 to 100,000 of these slaves are in the United States. Even though these are conservative estimates, they are also controversial, hotly debated, and may be impossible to prove. The numbers, along with the realities of modern slavery across the globe, are largely obscured from the public’s view—or, more commonly, in plain view but unrecognized—and thus largely unknown. What is clear is that the number is staggering: there are more slaves today than at any time in human history, including during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
The statutes “focus on the act of compelling or coercing a person’s labor, services, or commercial sex acts.” The coercion occurs in all of the expected ways—domestic servants lured from poor countries to care for children with the false promise of room, board, and schooling; women prostituted on the street or via websites like; agricultural workers picking tomatoes on isolated, rural farms in Florida—and unexpected, highly public ways—nail salons, restaurants, hotels, bars, country clubs, and in the homes of international diplomats.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which was reauthorized in 2008 under the Violence Against Women Act, was enacted to include “‘subtler’ forms of coercion and to broaden previous standards that only considered bodily harm.” Perpetrators need not use physical restraints on their victims as an element of the crime, and often use “[p]sychological means of control, such as threats, fraud, or abuse of the legal process.” In their defense, perpetrators often claim that the victim was free to leave all along and thus remained voluntarily. She walked the children to school, went to the grocery store by herself, accompanied the family to church, etc. None of these examples is dispositive of the opportunity to escape because perpetrators use violence, threats of violence, and psychological manipulation to coerce victims to believe they have no choice but to remain with their captors. These tactics include timing the victim and threatening to beat him if he is late, brutally beating any victim who escapes and is caught to serve an example to the others, or threatening to harm her family back in her home country.
Moreover, although the jurisdictional hook is interstate commerce, that requirement can easily be met without any of the individuals involved having moved across state lines, let alone international borders. For example, condoms produced or purchased outside the state and use of a cell phone have both met this element of the crime. Nor is there a national origin requirement, and many cases involve no foreign victims or perpetrators. Still, the United States government plays an important role in the global fight to end modern day slavery. Luis C.deBaca has served as the United States Ambassador in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons since 2009, and that office produces the influential Trafficking in Persons Report each year.
We as consumers in the United States are in an especially powerful position to help end modern day slavery in the United States and across the globe. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that slavery is a multi-billion dollar industry that produces $32 billion in profits and $21 billion of unpaid wages each year. Slave labor produces many common and luxury consumer goods, including chocolate, cotton, steel, Apple products, oriental rugs, diamonds, silk, sugar, soccer balls—you name it. As consumers, it is our responsibility to “vote” with our wallets and be cognizant of where our food and belongings come from. Kevin Bales has a plan to end slavery within the next 25 years. Let’s make it happen.

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