Slavery never ended in the United States; it continues here and across the globe, facilitated by globalization, corruption and greed. There are more people enslaved today - controlled by violence and forced to work without pay - than at any time in human history.
Experts put the number of slaves at 27 million worldwide. These men and women work across many sectors of the global economy, raking in profits for the criminals who hold them against their will. The US State Department estimates that 17,500 slaves are brought into the United States every year. An estimated 50,000 slaves are forced to work as prostitutes, farm workers and domestic servants in the US.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain recently mentioned domestic slavery during a stump speech. He pledged to establish a task force to coordinate various federal law enforcement agencies to target human trafficking - the process of smuggling slaves between countries. However, the Think Progress blog pointed out that such an agency already exists. Shortly after the speech, Democratic National Committee spokesperson Damien LaVera pointed out in an email that McCain had complained about and voted against a $200,000 earmark intended to fund a conference on human trafficking in 2001. "Once again McCain's earmark obsession conflicts with his campaign rhetoric," Lavera wrote.
McCain's campaign failed to return repeated calls for comment on the issue.
This was the first mention of modern slavery on the campaign trail. Little attention has been paid to the issue by the media, with stories about isolated incidents of slavery in other countries occasionally making headlines. However, international activists and scholars have been leading a movement to eradicate global slavery.
Free The Slaves, an organization founded by acclaimed human rights activist and scholar Kevin Bales, works on the front lines of slavery to find, rescue and rehabilitate slaves.
Bales, a professor of sociology at Roehampton University in London, is recognized as the leading expert on modern slavery.
Bales estimates that ending global slavery would cost between $10 billion and $15 billion, roughly ten percent of the amount the US government is sending out in tax rebates. "It would be interesting if we held a national referendum and asked people if they'd be willing to take ten percent of their stimulus check and use it to eradicate slavery across the globe," he said to Truthout, adding "I'd be willing to take $540 instead of $600."
In his latest book, "Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves," Bales describes the horrifying reality of modern slavery and proposes solutions. The book is a comprehensive examination of the current state of modern slavery, its causes and effects, its ties to global industry and business, and the activists who risk their lives to bring people out of slavery.
From young boys forced to endlessly weave intricate wool rugs in India to teens who are beaten and starved on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast, to a woman from Cameroon who was lured into forced domestic slavery by a suburban couple living outside Washington, DC, the stories in the book are heartbreaking.
In a section of the book titled "A Wake-Up Call in San Diego," Bales recounts the story of a sex-slavery operation in the small town of Oceanside, California, just north of San Diego, where Riena, a 15-year-old Mexican girl was forced to have sex with scores of migrant farmworkers on a daily basis. On the outskirts of the strawberry fields where the migrants worked, "pimps pushed paths through the tall reeds, and hollowed out small 'caves' along the paths. There on the ground, with scraps of clothing, bits of blankets, used condoms, spit, empty bottles and trash, teenagers were on their backs, forced to have sex with the two hundred men a day who prowled these paths."
Riena had been smuggled into the US and held captive by her pimp, who threatened to kill her infant daughter in Mexico if she ran away. After seven months, Riena tried to escape despite the threat. She was caught and brutally beaten. On her second attempt, she managed to reach the local police station.
This story had a happy ending. Mexican officials rescued Riena's baby. Two of the three brothers at the top of the organized crime syndicate running the trafficking operation were imprisoned, albeit on lesser charges.
The media exposure surrounding Riena's story and others like it forced San Diego officials to come to terms with the fact that slavery existed within their city. A community-based solution to address these types of situations was hammered out and procedures were established to create real cooperation between police, social services, and state and federal agencies.
With this and many other stories, Bales demonstrates that the political will to end slavery and enforce existing laws can only be created with public awareness. "Until slavery reaches the public agenda, slaves will continue to suffer," he writes.
"The key thing we need is leadership. There are roughly the same number of people trafficked into the United States every year as there are murders committed. Every single police department in the country has a homicide division, but there are only five that have units which specialize in trafficking," Bales told Truthout.