The lifeless infant in the story was not a victim of modern-day slavery nor had it been abused in any sense of the word. In fact, the newspaper quoted friends and neighbors saying that its parents were very loving – successful enough in their careers to provide the best care for their child. But, in the midst of one particularly hot summer day, with a laundry list of things to do, the mother simply forgot her baby was in the car when she parked at the office for just a moment. Having lost her sense of time, that moment became 90 minutes and, upon returning, her baby was dead. Police said the temperature inside the car probably reached 130 degrees.
What calls to mind the tragedy of a July afternoon past is my own attempt to comprehend something that, for most of us, is equally incomprehensible – the existence of modern-day slavery. It’s certainly not a perfect analogy, but both involve a grave injustice and seem to target the vulnerable among us.
The institutionalized slavery that we all learned about in our history books has gone, replaced by a new disjointed brand of black market servitude. Today the term slavery is defined as forced labor with little or no pay under the threat of violence. Although it affects a relatively small portion of the world’s population, there are a greater number of people suffering under slavery now than ever before. This criminal enterprise affects up to 27 million people worldwide; 80% of those are women and children. Revenues derived from modern-day slavery practices account for billions of dollars annually with much of that coming from commercial sex services.
The anti-slavery organization iAbolish identifies the four most common types of slavery as the following: chattel slavery, debt bondage, sex slavery and forced labor.
Chattel Slavery is closely associated with the race-based slavery with which many of us are most familiar. This is where men, women and children are bought and sold as property. Owners have a right to do as they please with their property whether that means beating, raping or even killing the slaves without expectation of reprisal or prosecution.
Of course, it’s astonishing to see that the most overt forms of slavery still happen in the world today but even more so when it happens so explicitly across our television screens as is the case in Darfur, Sudan.
Debt Bondage, or Bonded Labor is a kind of slavery that holds its victims in an endless cycle of debt and poverty. Extreme poverty will often force parents to offer themselves or their own children as collateral against a loan. Though they are told they will only work until the debt is paid off, inflated interest rates often make this impossible. As a result, the debt is inherited by the victim’s children, perpetuating a vicious cycle that can claim several generations.
Sex Slavery is a crime hiding beneath what is perceived as a lesser crime. Prostitution gains a kind of legendary or honored status because it is oft-handedly called the oldest profession. But look closer at the larger portion of the sex industry and you’ll find that it could more accurately be called the oldest form of slavery with a long history of women and children being forced to pleasure men in order to enrich their masters.
Some are lured by the promise of a well-paying job, while others are sold by poverty-stricken parents and still others are simply kidnapped then beaten and forced to work in brothels. For most, the only escape is death whether it’s through drug overdose, disease or repeated beatings. If, by chance, a victim does manage to leave the sex trade alive, the mental and emotional toll exacted by their tormentors may itself be overwhelming.
Forced Labor results when individuals are lured by the promise of a good job but instead find themselves subjected to slave conditions; working without pay while enduring physical and mental abuse with often harsh and hazardous surroundings. Victims include domestic workers, construction workers and even human mine detectors.
Another abhorrent form of slavery is the use of Child Soldiers. This is a practice most prevalent in Africa where tens or even hundreds of thousands of children are taken from their homes and forced to commit heinous acts of crime and warfare.
In reviewing the scope of modern-day slavery, even superficially, one wonders how a caring person alone could possibly help end a practice that is so deeply engrained in our human culture – thousands of years in the making. The challenge is not entirely dissimilar to that of preventing the reoccurrence of inadvertent infanticide described above.
I believe that the only way slavery will go without remedy is if people cynically accept it as an inevitable result of man’s natural deficiencies, including greed and indifference toward others. Similarly, more babies will die in cars if we accept a kind of social Darwinism affecting those with fast paced lifestyles and an overwhelming amount of data being juggled in their heads.
Of course, both scenarios are unacceptable and unnecessary. With vigilance we can prevent criminals from profiting on the backs of people who have become modern-day slaves. We can prevent runaway teens from falling prey to pimps who use and discard them like dirty rags. We can find ways to intercede when parents in Asia sell their children as a last resort to feed themselves. I believe we can finally bring an end to slavery in this century if we simply make as many people aware of its existence as possible. The fight against modern-day slavery must become a key concern in this generation’s great awakening to urgent causes around the globe.
During the summer in my community, there are daily warnings on the local news reminding residents how hot it will get inside their cars. We hope that news of modern-day slavery will be coming to your household soon.
Robert J. Benz
Founder & Executive Vice President
Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives