Unfree Market Unfree Market
Issue 014

Unfree Market

by Luke O'Brien

January 16, 2009

In 2008, trafficking of the world's 27 million slaves made up the third-most-profitable criminal enterprise. Here's what the $40-billion industry looks like.

The United States abolished slavery in 1865. Now, every country in the world has outlawed the practice. But you'd be mistaken to think that humankind had left the "peculiar institution" in its past. Slavery endures. And not just in isolated incidents or far-flung corners of the globe. Today, it happens as ecumenically as it did in the Old Testament, which is to say often and everywhere.As many as 17,500 people are brought into the United States as slaves every year. Though the practice occurs in many cities and towns, Immokalee, Florida, has become a flash point for the battle against agricultural slavery. There, crew bosses from local farms trick migrant workers into picking tomatoes and other crops, then deprive them of a living wage. Beatings and death threats are normal.Around 300,000 children are enslaved in Haiti as restavecs, or household servants. Here, poor single mothers give up their children to middle-class families for the promise of a better life. Restavecs, who might start working 20-hour days at age 6, are discarded as soon as they get pregnant or become too physically imposing.Many slaves here work in the illegal gold-mining industry. Bosses lure unemployed men to distant sites in the jungle, and once they arrive, the money vanishes and the guns come out. The good news? The president of neighboring Brazil has new laws in place that set the standard for the region. In Brazil, 6,000 slaves are freed every year.Europe is a major destination for women sold into the sex trade. But other types of slavery exist here, as well. Africans, particularly Nigerians, are forced to work in the agriculture and service sectors. And large numbers of Chinese are brought in for various purposes, among them garment-industry jobs.Slave brokers troll the destitute villages of West Africa for children they can take to Yeji, a fishing area around Ghana's Lake Volta where atrocities are common. The slaves wake up before dawn and fish into the night. Overseers attach weights to the children's ankles to help them drop to the lakebed and untangle nets, a practice which often results in drowning.There are around 18 million slaves in Nepal, Pakistan, and India, more than anywhere else in the world. The worst offender is India, where slavery usually takes the form of hereditary debt bondage, a situation in which people are born into slavery after inheriting their parents' debt. They work in agriculture and produce goods like rugby and soccer balls for Western consumers. In the north, hundreds of thousands of child slaves weave carpets for the global market.Japan's booming sex industry makes it the biggest user of slave labor among rich nations. An estimated 50,000 women are shipped into the country each year, from Thailand, the Philippines, China, and other parts of Asia. Many enter the country legally on "entertainment visas" that government says it has been regulating more tightly.

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