Modern Slavery: What We Can Do?
By Lori Fitzmaurice
February 2, 2014
One hundred fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He ordered the Union army to obtain the freedom of all people held in bondage in the states in rebellion against the Union. Hence, ending slavery became an explicit goal of the ongoing war.
Today, around the world, nearly every country has outlawed slavery. Nearly every country, however, is a home to slavery. An estimated 21-30 million human beings (depending on the types included) are held against their will by other human beings. Men, women, and children are made to labor without pay for the benefit of others, not for the benefit of their own lives or their families. Other people treat them like property, deny their freedom of movement.
Free the Slaves was founded by author Kevin Bales and others in 2000. What started as an awareness raising effort, soon evolved into on the ground work with grassroots partners in India and Nepal. From that, we’ve gone on to serving thousands in six countries where slavery is a significant social evil – India, Nepal, Brazil, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Haiti. Each country has unique characteristics and forms of slavery that complicate the work to eradicate it. But they share common truths – when a community is educated on their rights, supported in their access to basic services, and empowered to stand up to traffickers, slavery ends.
It’s hard to imagine that one person can own another person in today’s enlightened age, but it happens every day. While we experienced the end of slavery as a legal entity in the United States, we realize that there is still so much work to be done to recognize the equality of each other, provide the opportunities each of us deserve, and recognize the suffering that an entire race endures even today through discrimination and separation.
What did we learn from the abolitionists in our early history?
That those enslaved cannot simply be given their freedom and left to chance – the answer must be holistic.
That ending slavery is one of ending systems that support its very existence – such as lack of access to education, access to reasonable credit, access to livelihoods, and access to other basic services.
That while entire industrial systems were built on slavery in the world’s history, that today, no nation should be allowed to count on the sacrifice of its citizens to support its economic health. And that we, as consumers, hold a very powerful hand.
Today, I’m going to tell you about our model at Free the Slaves, one which seeks to end slavery using a holistic, indigenous approach.
We work in communities that experience many forms of slavery – sex trafficking, forced marriage, unsafe migration, and what is the world’s largest category of slavery – forced and bonded labor, or debt bondage. This means you have to work for someone to pay off a debt or loan. You could be working the rest of your life, and then your children have to take over the loan. This happens in all countries, including those in Asia and Africa.
Two such scenarios seen in our work are:
A husband and wife experience an obstetrical emergency, going to their local clinic, they are told they have to pay for equipment or medicine not available in the local site. They have no money. Loan sharks give them a loan, which they can “work off”. But the debt is so high and interest charged such that the debt can never be paid off.
Another scenario is the promise of work for young people. Come to the city, we’ll give you high paying work. Out of desperation, they accept, only to find that they are charged a fee for accepting, charges for food, clothing, and shelter that means they never can leave.
Many bonded laborers and victims of slavery don’t know that what’s happening to them is against the law. Many accept this as a longstanding practice and custom. Slaveholders prey on the vulnerability of communities. These are not powerless people or people who are not wise – they are without viable choices. Whether it’s the inherited debt of father to son, or the promise of schooling and jobs for young people or children, victims are convinced they have no options.
The common factor in all cases of slavery is the desperate poverty of a person or a family. Men, women and children end up working in brick kilns, stone quarries, mines, brothels, and on farms. Yet often they do not get paid, and no money goes to their families back home. They have been tricked, and they are trapped.
In Nepal, young women are not citizens of their own country without paternal permission. This makes them especially vulnerable to trafficking. With the promise of a great job in Kathmandu, or Dubai, they are then sex-trafficked to a brothel. Every day.
Slavery happens also in this country, and locally. Most of the people in the U.S. who are made to work without pay have come here from other countries, often as victims of trafficking. They work on large farms, in people’s private homes, in brothels and in other places hidden from view.
Far from their home country or family or friends, they also may be isolated by not being able to speak English. They are unaware that laws protect them, and unable to say the right words to ask for help. They may experience threats or beatings by those who keep them. In some other countries, some of the police are part of the slavery system, so somebody here from overseas may fear asking our police for help.
And with so many people trafficked or enslaved around the world, we realize that this problem is not the singular sin of a few bad people. Organized crime networks in the United States and other countries are involved in the modern slave trade, or human trafficking. In villages and cities in poorer nations, slavery is aided by corrupt public servants, court systems, and law enforcement. And in most cases, slavery is the inevitable result of the desperate poverty, and of the global trade systems and economic structures that have, around the world, thrown more families into poverty than they have relieved from poverty.
As a member of the human family, when I think about the greed and cruelty and the suffering, it can really get me down. When I was a child growing up in California, I spent time with my father who was an agricultural engineer in the fields of Central California. And when he told us we would stand with the farm workers and Cesar Chavez, while I didn’t realize at the time how deeply important this work was, I knew that it was a matter of life, death, and dignity. Those early morning marches, the boycotting, and the community dinners were full of pride, determination, and resilience, and I never let their pictures fade in my mind.
For slavery now, there is a ray of hope in this plight. More and more organizations and people are putting their hearts, minds, and boots into creating a world without slavery.
At Free the Slaves, we believe that when the community is empowered by indigenous local organizations, freedom is possible. How this is done involves layers of solutions. Here’s how it works:
Free the Slaves has a country director in each of the six countries who is from the country of origin, who knows their country and issues related to community vulnerability to slavery and trafficking.
One such person is Jack Kahorha in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I met Jack in person this past July. He is a quiet man, who speaks with intention and power. As a former journalist for Voice of America, Jack knows firsthand what is happening to communities in the Congo, especially the Kivu provinces in the east. In that area, gold mines, agriculture, and forced marriage trap the vulnerable of eastern Congo – men, women, and children working day in and day out in dangerous conditions for little or no pay, subjected to physical and sexual abuse in some cases.
We start by scoping the problem – what types of slavery exist, who is impacted, how widespread and who are the key players. Then we set out to identify the partners that would have the best position to make an impact on eradicating slavery. We assess what their strengths and challenges are, then design the types of support both financial and technical, that these organizations need. Small grants are provided, which we monitor, and Jack provides technical training on a community-based model of building resistance to slavery and rescue of current slaves.
This community-based model is what will bring sustainable change – committees of individuals come together as a “community vigilance” or “community protection” committee and are charged with identifying individuals in their village who are enslaved, what services their villages needs in order to become slavery-free, what the education needs are for community members on their rights, etc. Then, FTS provides the materials to help them free that community.
But we don’t stop there. In the Congo, Jack spends time in Kinshasa, the capital, advocating with government officials, ministries, courts, and the police to adopt and enforce anti-slavery laws. He works with those grassroots partners to do the same in their region, and also provides training to those agencies, including multi-national NGOs, on how to identify slavery, fight it, and enforce freedom.
At home, we are part of ATEST, the largest U.S. based coalition of anti-trafficking organizations – as a founding member, we have helped advocate with the U.S. government and corporations on legislation and policies, practices that will help end slavery from our shores. Through protection, funding for antislavery work, and supply chain management, this comprehensive solution can work. But we must remain vigilant.
The numbers can be misleading, because slavery is held deep in the villages and hamlets of every country. Do not be disheartened – we are not – we believe that it is our mission that we not only rescue and reintegrate individuals (approximately 7,000 since our founding) but that we free entire villages and keep them free (currently at over 170) and that we train citizens on their rights and government officials on their responsibility (over 14,000 in 2012 alone). With our model and our measurement of our progress and that of our partners, we share our models with others and the movement at large, so that best practices can be shared and multiplied into the deepest corners of the earth.
How can the faith community help? The cause of intervention for those made vulnerable by poverty and injustice is core to all of our faiths. There is not one religion that I am aware of that condones this practice. For most, it is a primary mission to end this – whether it is Shabbat, zakat, dharma, or social justice that drives us, we are one human family.
The issue is old, the answer complex, but the directive is simple. Not one more day can go by without us fighting to end this moral evil. Not one more child should wake up hungry and forced to work, to provide sex, or be beaten. Yet, this morning that very thing is happening and not so far away.
Edward Everett Hale, a leading American Unitarian in the 1800s, had this to say:
I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the some thing that I can do.
So… What can we do? We can end slavery. The institution of American slavery was outlawed 150 years ago, but not without centuries of struggle.
Sustained effort brought the truth to light, brought growing demands for change, and finally brought freedom. We can end global slavery. As consumers, we can demand slavery-free products. As business owners and investors, we can clean up company supply chains. As governments and citizens, we can toughen the enforcement of laws and protect the poor. As donors and as advocates, we can help to make sure that vulnerable people learn about their rights. We can help enslaved people take a stand for freedom. We can learn, we can give, and we can spread the word.
Be outraged. Demand companies take the steps to look deep into their supply chains and demand their sources are slavery free – Brazil now publishes a “dirty list” looking at supply chains from the bottom up. Companies avoid doing business with these sources. Contact local law officials and inquire as to their practices on identifying trafficking victims and if they have trained their force. Contact large hotel chains to see if they are training their staff to identify victims of trafficking. Contact your federal representatives to demand more funding for the Trafficking in Persons office; one of the prime sources of funding for work like ours. When you hear about the Maloney bill later this year, urge your representatives to support its work to demand transparency from companies. Use websites like Know the Chain, enough project, and goodweave to learn more about which companies are responsible in their sourcing.
Thank you for sharing your Sunday Against Slavery with me and allowing me to join your family today to share what is happening. I hope you are inspired and uplifted as a spiritual people to action in your own way. Every move is life-changing, let nothing stand in our way. Thank you and God bless.