There are more slaves today than at any point before in human history.
When I tell others this, often I receive blank stares and uncomfortable silence in response. Most people don’t know. Most people don’t want to know. But the fact is as true as it is tragic.
Modern-day slavery, more commonly known as human trafficking, is widespread. Statistics are hard to come by because of the “hidden in plain sight” or underground nature of the crime and gross underreporting, but these are some key figures:
- According to the UN International Labor Organization (ILO), 21 million people are enslaved today. Other abolitionist groups calculate that the number is just shy of 36 million.
- An estimated 55% of modern-day slaves are women and 26% are children.
- Human trafficking generates $150 billion U.S. dollars in profits per year worldwide, making it the second largest criminal enterprise in the world.
- Human trafficking is prevalent in the United States. It has been reported in all 50 states, and America is known to be a source, destination and transit country.
- Based on reported cases, California, Texas, Florida and New York are the states believed to have the most slaves, due in part to their population-dense metropolises and ports of entry. But trafficking also reaches suburban and rural areas of the country.
This staggering injustice begs the question: “What can I, a single person who is no expert on human rights, do to help eliminate human trafficking?” Here are some suggestions:
1. Educate yourself about the issue, then share what you learn with others.
To start, learn about the various forms modern-day slavery can take. One of the most common types of slavery is labor trafficking. Persons who are labor trafficked may work in homes as domestic servants, in factories or on farms. Cases have also included construction workers, restaurant employees, hotel/hospitality workers and beauty salon personnel. Debt bondage is often used to trap people in a labor trafficking situation.
Another common form of slavery is sex trafficking. A sex slave is forced to perform commercial sex acts, sometimes servicing dozens of sex buyers per day. They may work in brothels, via an escort service or out of motels. Unsurprisingly, this form of human trafficking disproportionately affects women and girls, who often suffer horrific violence at the hands of, and are sometimes forcibly drugged into compliance by, their pimps. Because of the coercive nature of sex slavery, understand that there is no such thing as a child prostitute.
Know that human trafficking does not require the movement of a person across national borders, and that it is distinct from human smuggling.
Understand how globalization and economic and social inequalities have contributed to the proliferation of human trafficking.
Know that high-risk populations include youth in foster care, and relatedly, runaway and homeless youth; refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons (IDPs); and persons affected by natural disasters.
If you need a reason to share what you learn with others, know that January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. What better time than now?
2. Concern yourself with supply chain transparency and alter your consumption accordingly.
In a nutshell, supply chain transparency refers to how readily available information is about a company’s suppliers. Where does a business get its raw materials and the labor to manufacture its products? Supply chain transparency allows different parties in the chain and end-users (i.e., customers like you and me) to know whether the goods and services we purchase are ethically sourced.
You might be shocked to know that your clothing, food, tech gadgets and other everyday items such as skin care products may have been produced using slave labor. Often, because of complex supply chains, the companies we buy from are themselves unaware of these practices. Thankfully, some countries are beginning to enact laws that would require greater transparency and corporate responsibility.
I offer the above examples not to inflict guilt, but to raise awareness about how the products we use every day give us a voice. Slavery will exist until the demand for it vanishes. We, the consumers, have the power to effect change by shopping differently. Would you be willing to, for example, pay a little bit more for a fair trade candy bar to send a message to the chocolate industry that it’s not OK for cacao beans to be harvested by trafficked children?
3. Learn the signs and report suspicious activity.
Become familiar with the red flags of human trafficking and what questions to ask a person if you suspect he or she may be enslaved. It can be particularly helpful to know the signs if you travel a lot, as persons who are trafficked internationally might be identifiable at airports. If you are a traveler, flight attendant, in the hotel industry, a healthcare professional or in law enforcement, you are in a unique position to identify and assist trafficked persons.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) has a toll-free, confidential hotline that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and can accommodate over 200 languages: (888) 373-7888. Put this number in your cell phone and don’t hesitate to report suspicious activity. You never know if your tip might be the first step toward someone else’s freedom.
There is far more that could be said about human trafficking than one article can contain. I invite you to learn more and join the modern anti-slavery movement. To quote William Wilberforce, one of the abolitionists who sought to end the transatlantic slave trade some two centuries ago, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”