Human trafficking is still big business

There is no question that the United Nations has become enormously political and petty. But it still offers some hope for addressing and even resolving some disputes around the world, and it should be allowed to continue to exist — if only to keep that hope alive.

One of the best ways for the U.N. to regain some positive status would be to find, focus upon and work to resolve a serious problem in the world, and it would be more likely to be successful if the actions that spawned that problem were condemned by every government in the world. Well, such an opportunity exists, because human trafficking, or human slavery, exists all around the world and generates about $9.5 billion each year! So this is an unimaginably large problem, and the United Nations should make the eradication of slavery its top priority.

The most common definition of a slave is a person who is in a social or economic relationship in which he or she is controlled by violence or the threat of violence, forced to work without being paid, and is not permitted to leave. Depending upon which institution you consult, there are somewhere between 12.3 million and 27 million slaves in the world today. And, hard as it may be to believe, it is estimated that about 15,000 people are brought into the United States each year to be enslaved. About 80% of the world’s slaves are women, and 50% are younger than 18. The reason for this is that women and children are usually more docile, which means that they are more easily held in bondage.

With globalization, it is far easier now to transport slaves around the world. In fact, after illicit drugs and guns, slaves are the largest illegal commodity in the world. Slaves are used worldwide not only in prostitution, but also as agricultural, garment and domestic workers. Often they are lured from poverty areas by the promise of food and jobs in another country. But once they arrive, their passports are confiscated, and they are enslaved. Some children are even sold by their desperate parents so that the parents will have more resources to feed and clothe their other children.

As it is required to do by the Trafficking Persons Protective Act, each year the U.S. secretary of state’s office provides a list of countries that are turning a blind eye to the existence of slavery within their borders. As of 2009, these countries are Burma (Myanmar Republic), Chad, Cuba, Eritrea, Fiji, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mauritania, Niger, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria and Zimbabwe. Slavery occurs in these countries because many police, government officials and judges either look the other way to its presence or actually take bribes to allow it to continue.

As a result, and contrary to what most people would think, the 20th century saw a three-fold increase in slavery over what was present in the 19th century. In fact, slavery is so prevalent that the costs of owning a slave today are far lower than before. For example, in many places a slave today can be bought for about $90, whereas in the 1850s the average price in today’s currency was about $40,000. That means that, among other things, there is far less of an incentive to keep one’s slaves alive today than there was before, because it is so cheap to purchase replacements. For that reason, slaves are often referred to as “disposable people.”

It is hard to imagine how there could there be a more important and non-controversial issue that the world could unite and rally behind, and the United Nations would be the best place to start. How could any civilized society publicly refuse to take part in the total eradication of slavery?

Well, unfortunately, the answer to that question often is money. Imagine how hard some governments around the world are pushing OPEC countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on this issue, considering at the same time that they desperately need to buy oil from those same countries. In addition, often the enslaved people who are discovered and liberated in various places around the world are so fearful about what may happen to their family members back home if they testify against those who sold them into bondage, or kept them there, that prosecutions are difficult. Therefore, often the traders are simply deported instead of being prosecuted.

But if there is the political will, progress can be made. For example, in direct response to the public outrage that resulted from discovering a farm that was using hundreds of slaves, the government of Brazil began taking action to punish slave trading, and has been successful in freeing thousands of slaves. In addition, Brazil has also taken the action permanently to deprive any company from receiving any government grants or loans if they have been involved in using slaves in their businesses.

Another successful manner of fighting slavery comes from consumers organizing themselves to boycott companies that use slave labor. Traditionally one of the industries that has engaged in this despicable behavior was the cocoa plantations in West Africa. Of course, sometimes it is difficult to determine on a retail level which producer is involved and which is not. Nevertheless, when consumers boycotted the entire industry it was so effective that most of the companies that were using slaves changed their ways. That means that, with a little caring and effort, all of us can do our part to reduce and even eventually eliminate this practice.

For more information about the slavery problem of the 21st century I recommend you read two books. One is Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl L. WuDunn’s “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” (Borzai Books, 2009), and the other is Kevin Bales’ “Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves” (University of California Press, 2007). You can also visit or (which stands for Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking) to learn more about how you can get involved.

Finally, as fortune would have it, Kevin Bales, who is considered to be one of the foremost authorities in the world about modern day slavery, will be speaking at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles near Los Angeles International Airport at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Hilton Hall, Room 100. I encourage you to attend this sobering and important presentation and then get involved.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)