06.28.11

Today's Hidden Slave Trade

Modern human slavery isn’t just about sex trafficking—up to 27 million people are forced into labor in the global economy, from tomatoes to electronics to American military contracting in places like Iraq. Michelle Goldberg on our underreported slave trade.

When Americans think about human trafficking, they tend to think about sexual slavery. The very real stories of girls sold to brothels or tricked into prostitution by gangsters are great fodder for journalists. They attract the kind of celebrity commitment that puts causes on the map—see, for example, last week’s Demi Moore-hosted CNN special about sex slaves in Nepal.

The issue certainly deserves our attention—indeed, its horrors can scarcely be overstated. But as the State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons report makes clear, sexual bondage is only a part of a much larger and more insidious evil. Modern slavery isn’t just about sex. Huge parts of the global economy, from tomatoes to electronics to American military contracting, are tied up with forced labor.

“Many people who work on this, work on this because sex trafficking awoke them to action,” says Luis CdeBaca, director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. But in fighting slavery, he says, “getting to a place where we are looking at domestic servitude, agriculture and factories as well as prostitution is the natural next step.”

Releasing the annual trafficking report on Monday, Hillary Clinton pointed out that as many as 27 million men, women, and children worldwide are victims of modern-day slavery. The report doesn’t contain a breakdown of various types of trafficking, but CdeBaca says labor trafficking is the most prevalent type. “The dusty images of slaves working on plantations line bookshelves and museum walls, but the demand for cheap goods in a globalized economy sustains slavery today in fields and farms,” the report says.

It contains harrowing stories of sex slaves, but also of people forced into labor in mines, on fishing boats, and in private homes. One Middle Eastern woman named Amita was kept by a family in London who forced her to work in their house from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, then hired her out to clean office buildings all night.

The likelihood that a smartphone was not touched by a slave is pretty low.

In the past, says CdeBaca, some feminists and religious conservatives have resisted attempts to talk about forced labor and sex trafficking as part of the same broader issue. “There were those who said that by focusing on both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, that somehow we were [treating] prostitution as a valid form of labor,” he says. Some felt that “if you care about women you should do stuff on sex trafficking—labor trafficking is a distraction.” But labor trafficking, besides being a gross human rights violation, is also a feminist issue. Seventy percent of guest workers from Indonesia, for example, are female. “Women are the majority of farmers in the world,” CdeBaca points out. “That means that many of the people who are enslaved in the fields, even in the U.S., are women.”

In June, The New Yorker ran a harrowing story about trafficking victims lured to Iraq under false pretenses to work for American military contractors. Among the victims were women from Fiji who thought they were going to lucrative salon jobs in Dubai but ended up “unwitting recruits for the Pentagon’s invisible army: more than seventy thousand cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians, and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries who service U.S. military logistics contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” as Sarah Stillman wrote.

Stillman’s shocking expose didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved, which is perhaps not a surprise, because labor trafficking rarely does. “[S]uccessful prosecutions of sex-trafficking offenses far outnumber successful forced labor prosecutions,” the State Department report says. “Unlike sex trafficking, labor-trafficking crimes are often committed by persons perceived as respected members of society or accomplished business leaders, who are less likely to be investigated than unsavory characters involved in organized crime or living unlawfully off the proceeds of the commercial sex trade.”

Decent people do not participate in the buying and selling of sexually enslaved people. But most of us, no matter how well-meaning, contribute to the broader economy of trafficking. “Most of what’s in our medicine chests has palm oil, which comes from eastern Cambodia or Sumatra or other places where we know there’s a lot of folks enslaved on those plantations,” says CdeBaca. “There’s an awful lot of slavery on the fishing fleets of Southeast Asia, and a lot of the shrimp that we eat in the United States comes from there.” He points to my iPhone, which is sitting on the table recording our conversation. It, like all smartphones, relies on a mineral called coltan, much of which is mined by forced laborers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The likelihood that one of these was not touched by a slave is pretty low,” he says. “So that does make us responsible.”