“Didn’t slavery end 150 years ago?”
No, but you can’t be blamed for thinking that based on the way most people talk about the issue of slavery. The United States, and the world, changed fundamentally in 1865 when legal slavery was outlawed by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A system of legal slavery – sometimes known as chattel slavery – in which human beings were owned, sold and treated as property was finally banished from every country on earth in 1981.
But while this momentous act in 1865 did eliminate the legal form of slavery that dominated America’s first 75 years, it did not end the practice of one person forcing others to work – commercially or privately – against their will and for the profit of another. This practice, which is the essence of slavery, predated the United States for millennia in places like ancient Rome and Egypt and has been in every place ever since.
What’s happening today isn’t new, but it is different. What’s remained the same is the slaver. The modern slaver must operate in the shadows, just like all criminals. He or she must conceal the essential nature of enslavement – controlling a fellow human being in order to profit from their labor – in the shell of other industries like commercial sex, agriculture, hospitality, material mining, domestic service or rug-making. The modern slaver hides and hopes we don’t notice his changed stripes.
But we do, just like Frederick Douglass did:
“They would not call it slavery but some other name. Slavery has been fruitful in giving herself names…and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth.” – Frederick Douglass
To tackle slavery today and help those 28 million people find freedom, we must then understand the “new forms” this old monster has assumed.
Between 21 million and 30 million men, women and children are enslaved today. That means there are more slaves now than during all the years of the entire transatlantic slave trade combined.
“It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name — modern slavery.”
– President Barack Obama in remarks to the Clinton Global Initiative in 2012
Modern Slavery Defined
Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery that occurs when one person exerts control over another person in order to exploit them economically. In this scenario, the victim is controlled through manipulation, violence, or the threat of violence and cannot walk away.
The definition of human trafficking, as outlined in the UN Protocol, has three main components:
- The Action; which means the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons
- The Means; which includes threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability
- The Purpose; which is always exploitation. Article 3 of the UN Protocol says exploitation “shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;”
Human trafficking is further broken down into two forms: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking occurs in contexts that can include all forms of labor and services, including domestic servitude, sweat shops, and farm laborers forced to work without pay. Sex trafficking occurs in contexts that encompass the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), as well as all adults who engage in a commercial sex act because of force, fraud, or coercion.
While all human trafficking involves exploitation, not all forms of labor or sexual exploitation are considered human trafficking.
Slavery In the United States
Though modern slavery is a hidden crime that is difficult to quantify, the U.S. government and academic researchers are working to develop better estimates of trafficked persons in the United States. We are careful not to use hyperbole or sensationalize this complex and systemic problem, and the reality of what survivors have endured needs no embellishing.
These statistics help paint a picture of slavery in the U.S. today: