Many of those slaves were not freed. Ironically, in 2012, the United States still has millions of slaves. They are not of African descent on Southern plantations but from all points of the globe: prostitutes, domestic cleaners, restaurant and hotel workers, agricultural laborers and drug and gun carriers.
The United States is not alone in human trafficking, which is defined as denying a person the freedom to leave, the inability to obtain another job and being held through some type of coercive force.
Last spring, the International Labor Organization released a study estimating that at least 21 million people are in bondage worldwide. Other estimates put the number at 27 million.
This is no small matter. The study shows that the total world market value of human trafficking is in excess of $32 billion. A lot of that money flows to U.S. companies and individuals.
Fortunately, many individuals, nonprofit organizations and government agencies have worked tirelessly for many years to curb human slavery in the United States and the rest of the world. Their efforts are bringing long overdue attention to this enduring tragedy.
Gary Haugen, president and CEO of International Justice Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit human rights organization, is a leader in the effort to stamp out human slavery. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honored Haugen in June for successes in 15 communities in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Haugen told me that traffickers always exploit the most vulnerable, those who are in the shadows of society. People trying to stay below the radar are lured by traffickers with promises of a better future. He said migrant farm workers are especially vulnerable to enslavement because they move around and lack ties to the communities where they briefly work and live.
“Americans at all levels need to be aware that human trafficking is a real problem,” he said. “We need to raise awareness amongst commercial enterprises that are making money off of trafficking without perhaps even knowing it. Consumers need to make sure that grocery stores that we shop at and large food supply and commercial enterprises know that consumers are going to be asking questions and requiring good citizenship and make sure that our food supply chain has no scent of any forced labor or labor abuses.
“We also need to make sure that the chief of police, the sheriff and local attorney understand that slavery is an issue across communities and that they need to prioritize proactive law enforcement to address this critical issue.”
On the U.S. government side, Luis CdeBaca, ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons for the State Department, is unequivocal about the scourge of trafficking.
He believes the campaign to stop trafficking has been strengthened because this year, for the first time, the United States includes itself in its own annual Trafficking in Persons Report, our principal diplomatic tool to interact with foreign governments on human trafficking.
Until now, many nations have scorned the report as being a tool for America to punish governments it dislikes. During a National Public Radio interview, CdeBaca said: “We have a matrix of how we look at a country to see whether it’s fighting trafficking effectively or not. And it was really kind of unfair to not apply that to the United States.
“There were trafficking victims in the U.S. who might not have been getting what they needed if we didn’t apply that same diagnosis to ourselves. In some ways, it’s like having a doctor that had spent eight years not giving himself a blood pressure test while telling every one of his patients they needed to have their blood pressure checked.”
Haugen, CdeBaca and others are leading what is being referred to as the “modern abolitionist movement.” The shameful irony is that on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, millions of people, many of them teenage girls, are enslaved in America.
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.