I wrote recently about 12 Years A Slave and how the movie starkly captured the brutality and inhumanity that legally existed in this country for 246 years. I ended my blog post cheering on the movie at the upcoming Oscars and noting Nelson Mandela’s great quote: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
12 Years A Slave did win its very deserved Best Picture Oscar that Sunday. Yet when he accepted the award, director Steve McQueen didn’t mention the end of slavery. Rather, his final words that night concerned slavery’s stubborn continued existence:
Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery, and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.
Slavery In Present Day
Slavery is illegal in the United States, of course, yet it still exists in our country, our cities and our neighborhoods. It exists as forced labor in restaurants, factories, dry cleaners and nail salons. It exists as forced commercial sex in the house down the street and the massage parlor across the way. And, as the mass arrests at the Super Bowl so heartbreakingly demonstrated, it exists as trafficked women and children forced into the sex trade on the eve of the most-watched television event of the year.
Despite the term, human trafficking does not require persons to be transported across borders. As defined in the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act, it requires a person be bound to perform unpaid labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion. Force, fraud or coercion is not necessary if the victim is a minor.
What Are The Statistics On Human Trafficking ?
The statistics are eye-opening. According to the non-profit institution, the Polaris Project, up to 27 million people may be enslaved today. 800,000 of them are trafficked across international borders every year. 80% of transnational victims are women and girls. 70% of them are trafficked into the sex industry, 50% of them children. And 2 million children every year are exploited by the global commercial sex trade.
The State Department estimates that nearly 18,000 foreign nationals are trafficked annually into the United States, the vast majority into the sex industry. Nationwide, the domestic statistics focus primarily on children. Hands Across the World estimates that between 100,000 and 300,000 American children are prostituted in the United States. These children are usually runaway children, foster children and homeless children. According to the Chicago Dream Center, their average age of entry is 11-14 years old. Their average lifespan is 7-10 years.
How much is this worth? In 2005, the International Labor Organization estimated that human trafficking makes $32 billion dollars annually. According to the CIA, a single trafficked woman can make a trafficker $250,000. Solomon Northrup was sold for $650.
Human trafficking is modern day slavery. But it is not slavery that can end with a Constitutional Amendment, or a Civil War. It is slavery that can only end if we each do our part to end it, as both attorneys and individuals.
Laurel Bellows, past President of the American Bar Association, created an ABA Task Force in 2012 to combat human trafficking through public awareness, advocacy, training and education. The task force develops best practices for corporations, drafts uniform anti-trafficking state law, and creates pro bono initiatives to train lawyers to help victims. Attorneys interested in joining the Task Force should visit the ABA website and learn how they can contribute their skills and resources to, as Laurel writes, guarantee freedom and liberty for all.
Outside of the Task Force, there are numerous ways can assist in combating modern slavery. We can offer pro bono assistance with visa applications, divorce petitions, restraining orders, housing and public benefits and civil and criminal complaints. There are even non pro bono opportunities in our daily jobs, whether as general counsel ensuring that contracted suppliers abide by anti-trafficking guidelines or as prosecutors ensuring that the trafficker, and not the victim, is prosecuted.
We can also do our part outside the workplace. First, get educated about human trafficking. Learn how to recognize its victims, including the ones who live on your street. Stay alert and look out for red flags that indicate human trafficking, including living with an employer, inability to speak without the employer present, and signs of physical or emotional abuse. Second, determine how you as a consumer assist human trafficking – visit the website www.slaveryfootprint.org. Finally, in this election year, agitate for legislative reform that can effectively address the problems of human trafficking. This includes H.R. 2805, federal legislation that would prosecute both those who traffic human beings, and those who purchase them.
That entire Nelson Mandela quote reads: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful country will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.” Starting today, work to eliminate the stench of human trafficking and end three hundred and ninety-six years, and counting, of American slavery.
(This is a revised edition of an article that was previously published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.)