On January 4, 2010, President Obama issued a proclamation that January 2010 is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, culminating in an annual celebration of National Freedom Day on February 1. The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, noted the president, became effective on January 1 and the 13th Amendment was sent to the states for ratification on February 1, 1865. President Obama urged the nation and the global community to fight modern slavery and human trafficking. This proclamation is a step in the right direction toward acknowledging that slavery still exists, but to have any lasting meaning and impact, the federal government must re-evaluate its current approach to eradicating slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation, of course, was ratified after the country had fought a bloody war that ended in the abolition of slavery. The 2010 proclamation, however, comes when no government on earth, including the U.S., has committed resources of any significance to ending modern day slavery, even though there are more slaves on earth than at any other time in history. Non-governmental organizations estimate that today there are at least 27 million slaves globally, even though slavery has been officially abolished everywhere on earth. The figure 27 million is more than twice the 11 million Africans who were kidnapped and trafficked to the New World during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The reasons why there are so many slaves today are complex, but basically, the global population has tripled in size since the 19th century. So many more people and fewer resources have led to many more poor people who are vulnerable to criminal exploitation by traffickers and slave owners. Kevin Bales, of the organization Free the Slaves, says there are so many more slaves today because they are substantially cheaper than in the 19th century, when a slave in the Deep South cost $40,000 in today's dollars. Today, a slave can be bought for less than $100. Mr. Bales refers to modern day slaves as "disposable people" meaning that today's slave owners do not care about the ownership aspect of slavery, they only want the forced labor. When slaves today become sick or die, owners simply replace them with others, as if they were Styrofoam cups, says Mr. Bales.
The basic facts about modern day slavery are startling: Human Rights Watch estimates that in India alone there are as many as 15 million children in slavery. According to the U.S. Department of State, about 80% of trafficking victims are women and girls and up to 50% are minors. Human trafficking generates a minimum of $32 billion annually in profits, second only to drug trafficking and there are reports that in some parts of the world, such Western Europe, human trafficking has surpassed drug trafficking as the number one international crime.
There are so many slaves today because in addition to the supply, there is a staggering demand for slaves around the globe: in agriculture (including in Brazil, where slave labor is being used to clear the Amazon for cattle ranches), manufacturing, construction, textile and fashion industries, restaurant and hospitality services, brick making, rug making, domestic labor, prison-linked forced labor (fake arrests), military forced labor (including child soldiers), and the sex industry (including child prostitutes). Slaves are used to settle debts in illegal drug and weapons trafficking transactions.
The definition of a slave is the same as during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. A slave is a person who works without free choice and who cannot leave because of punishment or fear of punishment. According to UNICEF, worldwide, there are about 2 million children in the commercial sex trade. (There is a bill that the Obama administration should promote: The Child Protection Compact Act of 2009 (H.R. 2737), which seeks to provide U.S. aid for the purpose of eradicating trafficking in children in eligible countries.)
The main problem with the Obama administration's approach to the eradication of slavery is that the U.S. is sending a signal to other countries that slavery is not as serious as it is. The U.S. State Department issues an annual Trafficking in Persons report about what other countries are doing about ending slavery and human trafficking, but the U.S. is not included in its own report.
The U.S., with its history of civil war to end slavery, needs to be a global leader in the fight to eradicate modern day slavery and it can do so by committing substantial financial and personnel resources to this matter. Third World countries need these resources to enforce their labor and anti-slavery laws by conducting unannounced random searches and inspections at sites where slavery exists. Today's slave owners and human traffickers are like their counterparts in the 19th century: they will not stop enslaving people without a protracted fight led by a mighty government that takes the high moral ground.