Slavery is not legal anywhere, including the United States, but it happens everywhere. In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery. Yet most major studies indicate it thrives there. And it does in America. There are believed to be more slaves in the world today than at the height of the transatlantic trade between Africa and the Colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries.
I use the concept of legal slavery in 2115 America as the central plot construct in my novel, The Chronicles of Spartak–Rising Son. I wanted to take the unthinkable and posit the case for why it is possible while raising awareness of the tragedy of slavery today. Assuming current economic and political trends continue–wealth concentration, religious intolerance, voter suppression, globalization–American democracy could be lost in the next decades. But slavery?
Looking at some of the most oft repeated figures:
The Borgen Project, a non-profit addressing issues of poverty worldwide, offers the $90 statistic. That’s cheaper than in the mid-19th century when a planter could pay around $1,200 for a slave, about $40,000 in today’s money. Around the world today 27 million humans (some groups claim up to 40 million) live in bondage: eighty percent female, half children. In the United States, the State Department estimates between 14,500 and 18,500 people are trafficked each year. Other studies indicate some 10,000 Americans simply disappear each year, no clue on what happened to them.
The Department of Health and Human Services reports that trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise and tied with arms dealing as the world’s second most lucrative enterprise. The drug trade is first. Slavery is over a $90 billion business.
The Global Slavery Index offers a ranking by countries on slavery. It lists 167 countries starting with the one with the highest percent of slaves, Mauritania (4%), to the lowest, Iceland and Ireland (0.007%). The U.S. is at number 145 (0.019%).
A person doesn’t have to be chained up or physically locked up in a room. Traffickers use very subtle psychological persuasion techniques, according to a 2011 report by the American Psychological Association. Quoting the APA report:
“You might never suspect that a neighbor has a maid who’s never allowed to leave the house, for example. You might walk by someone who’s one the way to work at a job she can’t quite because of massive debt to her trafficker. Or you might drive past field or orchards being harvested by trafficked agricultural workers.”
To much fanfare in 2010, the FBI filed the largest trafficking case in U.S. history against a company named Global Horizons. The company allegedly used traffickers to lure workers from Thailand to work on farms in Hawaii, Utah and elsewhere. They toiled for little or no pay and lived in squalid conditions, That is what the New York Times said in an editorial:
“In the abuse of legal foreign workers, the numbers vary but the methods are the same. It is slavery without shackles. Its perpetrators seldom have to resort to violence or even threats of violence. Since workers are buried in debt before they even leave their home countries, the threat of being fired and deported is enough.
“To lose a guest-worker job means irreparable harm: destitution, unpayable debt, the lost of mortgaged family land. Under those conditions, a worker will accept any abuse, live and work in squalor and do what he is told. Everyone else–the middlemen; the companies that get ‘cheap, compliant labor,’ in the words of the Global Horizons indictment; and the grocery buyers who eat cheap, fresh produce, subsidized by suffering–is satisfied.”
In 2012, federal prosecutors dismissed the human trafficking case against Global Horizons and its CEO, despite the fact that three others charged earlier pleaded guilty. The dismissal came after missteps by prosecutors.
Sometimes people do stupid things and walk right into the hands of traffickers. It is estimated that one our of every three teenagers on the street will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of running away from home.
Slave-owners often use euphemisms instead of the term “slavery” in order to avoid getting caught, according to The Borgen Project (see photo from its site). Such euphemisms include: debt bondage, bonded labor, forced labor, indentured servitude, attached labor, and restavec (a French word that means “one who stays with” but refers to an illegal 200-year-old practice in Haiti of poor families giving or selling children to wealthier families). I use the term restavec in my novel as the concept behind legalized slavery in 2115, destitute parents selling or being coerced to sell their children to the wealthy, often as trophies for the elite class bored with traditional signs of wealth and anxious to have the next new gewgaw.
When you own everything, how do you impress your friends?
In a fascinating interview (KQED FM, 4/2016), historian Fergus M. Bordewick talked about the creation of the America government (The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government, Simon & Schuster, 2016). Asked about slavery in the north, he said there were more slaves in New York in the 1790s than in Georgia. Many were purchased as status symbols, he explained, a new form on conspicuous consumption by the rich in New York City.
“Fisherman say they faced high-seas slavery” is the headline in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (9/23/16). “A San Jose tuna boat captain was sued Thursday by two Indonesian fisherman who said they were forced into high seas slavery aboard a Honolulu-based fishing vessel for several months.” One man said when asked to leave the boat was told he would have to pay $6,000 to reimburse the captain for the money he had paid to acquire him. Both men now have visas. And one, interestingly, is an Uber driver.
In 2115 America, meet 16-year-old Spartak Jones. No middle class. A handful of families own virtually everything, including government. The U.S. Supreme Court approves a form of debt bondage to guarantee repayment of loans and clear title to children sold by desperate parents. A handsome scholarship student from the lower class gains fame for his athletic prowess and comes to the attention of a wealthy woman looking for the perfect birthday gift for her son. She can buy anything and he has everything so finding a unique gift is tough. The high court decision is an inspiration. Owning someone would be something new, she thinks, a fun surprise. Spartak becomes a symbol of an America that used to be and might be again, an icon for a revolution.
Now we need to free the Spartak’s of 2016. And make certain my scenario never happens.
Check out numerous web sites by non-profit groups focused on slavery and human trafficking. Get involved in a major human tragedy that is often under reported. Here is a starting point.
The Borgen Project
American Psychological Association
2014 Global Slavery Index
New York Times on Global Horizons