Unbeknownst to most Americans, slavery affects our lives every day, from the shirts we wear to the food we eat. Many of our cell phones and computers use metals mined by slaves; the vegetables, fruits, and meats that adorn our dining tables may have been harvested by children or forced laborers; much of the cloth we use, from carpets to tee-shirts, are woven or sewn by slaves, some in the Carpet Belt of India and others in small, studio apartments in Manhattan. Many people believe that slavery only occurs in other countries. Quite frequently, however, it is going on in our own backyards. The State Department has decided that any harboring, transporting, or use of a person can be human trafficking if force or coercion is employed or if the person is a minor. Despite this wide-reaching definition and the numerous laws that have been passed concerning human trafficking, little has been done to stem its flow. It is estimated that 300,000 American children are at risk of being trafficked each year and that human trafficking has an annual profit in the billions.
Today we view antebellum slavery as one of the worst tragedies in American history. It took a massive war to end slavery then, but now there are peaceful steps that can be taken to end human trafficking.
Raising awareness in communities is the first step in addressing the problem locally. In some European nations and now in Texas, it is required that any place that sells alcohol hangs a sign that reminds customers that buying sex is illegal. Something as simple as using ads on taxi cabs to condemn slavery rather than support gentlemen’s clubs, for instance, would spread the word in New York City easily and quickly. These ads send the message that law enforcement is not willing to turn a blind eye.
On the national level, we can extend government sponsored services that are currently afforded only to foreign-born slaves to American-born slaves as well. Following the example of the Thai company NightLight Design, we could set up businesses to hire, provide support for, teach vocational skills to, and protect former slaves regardless of where they are born. Besides addressing the problem of domestically born slaves, companies like these would help raise awareness.
However, not everything can be done within American borders; the international community must band together to fight against this human rights abuse. Opening more schools throughout the world can help to slow the traffic. Many traffickers use employment as a bait to lure their victims into slavery. If more people were capable of finding work, traffickers would have more trouble luring people. Also, if minors spent more time in the protected environment of a school, they would be less vulnerable to trafficking. Beyond expanding educational opportunities, these schools would expand job opportunities in small nations, and some of the economic incentives for taking work overseas from shady sources could be reduced.
Most importantly, we need to end the perverse incentives that lead to human trafficking. Human trafficking is so lucrative that it will soon surpass the traffic of guns and drugs and become the single most profitable criminal enterprise in the world. Incarceration and even prosecution are rare: few victims speak out, making it hard to make a legal case against perpetrators of these crimes. The risks, when compared to the rewards, are negligible, and to free ourselves from the dark grips of slavery, we need to make the profits less appealing and the risks dangerous, real, and unavoidable. By following the example of Italian priest Don Cesare, we would be able to put a real dent in trafficking.
Cesare set up what was initially a halfway house for refugees entering Italy, but quickly became a safe-house for trafficked women from across Europe. Cesare has become a champion of the cause and pressures the governments of other nations into enforcing their anti-trafficking laws. By forcibly involving different governments and police bodies, he is making it more dangerous to traffic people into and out of Italy. If governments all over the world could be moved to similar action, it would be much harder for traffickers to run their businesses internationally.
Slavery has been hidden from the public for so long that many of us are unaware it still exists. We have been taught that the age of slavery is over, and that people stood up against slavery decades ago. We believe that the time to fight has passed. However, the time is now, and the responsibility rests on our shoulders. It is time for us to do more than say “no” to trafficking and to slavery. It is time for us, the next generation of leaders, to look at our lives, at our luck, and work to extend our opportunities to others. It is time for us to stop the traffic.