Slavery: work yet unfinished


Over a year ago, I wrote a post about the large number of slaves in a world where it is almost unanimously illegal. The number I cited was 27,000,000.

The Walk Free Foundation has joined in this study by releasing their first report on global slavery. Their number is around 29,600,000- almost ten percent higher. And it points out how wide the problem is. Some countries (Mauritania, Haiti) have a high proportion of slaves, and large countries like India, Pakistan, and China have slave populations in the millions. But no country is completely free. The use of illegal immigrants as sexual or servile labor exists even in the most advanced, liberal stated. They estimate 59,000 slaves live in the United States. They remark:

“The relative wealth of Canada and the United States, their demand for cheap labor and relatively porous land borders, makes them prime destinations for human trafficking.”

In some ways, it is still like the days of the Transatlantic slave trade. Economics makes the international trafficking of people lucrative, and while it is no longer legal, it is also difficult to control. For a citizen, it is unlikely that he or she will be enslaved; but for another class of people, they come to America in chains. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries it was Africans, now they come from all over the world. Families from Asia and the Middle East bring child servants with them (a well-known case from an Egyptian couple), and prostitution is in many ways buoyed by cheap involuntary labor. Living in the the Bay Area, I know that San Francisco has slaves, brought from Asian countries to work in brothels and “massage parlours.” Actions to rescue children have happened as recently as August- a nationwide sweep included 12 children in San Francisco.

Often we think of freedom in political terms. You live in a democracy like France or Japan, or you live in a dictatorship like North Korea. The first means you are free, the latter unfree. But it’s more essential than that. It’s about freedom to go to school, and to work where you want to. It’s about receiving pay and benefits for what you accomplish. It’s about being able to appeal to the government or private organizations for help and advice. It’s ultimately being treated as a person rather than property.

In America we think of “slavery” as a historical concept, something that was settled with the Thirteenth Amendment and a brief ceremony in a Virginia parlor. But it’s not just history. It is memory, it is reality. We have work yet unfinished.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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