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More Slaves Today Than Any Other Time in History

"All prostitutes are not slaves and not all slaves are prostitutes."

Foreign Policy, March/April 2008

By E. Benjamin Skinner
There are now more slaves on the planet than at any time in human history. True abolition will elude us until we admit the massive scope of the problem, attack it in all its forms, and empower slaves to help free themselves.

Standing in New York City, you are five hours away from being able to negotiate the sale, in broad daylight, of a healthy boy or girl. He or she can be used for anything, though sex and domestic labor are most common. Before you go, let’s be clear on what you are buying. A slave is a human being forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. Agreed? Good.

Most people imagine that slavery died in the 19th century. Since 1817, more than a dozen international conventions have been signed banning the slave trade. Yet, today there are more slaves than at any time in human history.

And if you’re going to buy one in five hours, you’d better get a move on. First, hail a taxi to JFK International Airport, and hop on a direct flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The flight takes three hours. After landing at Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, you will need 50 cents for the most common form of transport in Port-au-Prince, the tap-tap, a flatbed pickup retrofitted with benches and a canopy. Three quarters of the way up Route de Delmas, the capital’s main street, tap the roof and hop out. There, on a side street, you will find a group of men standing in front of Le Réseau (The Network) barbershop. As you approach, a man steps forward: “Are you looking to get a person?”

Meet Benavil Lebhom. He smiles easily. He has a trim mustache and wears a multicolored, striped golf shirt, a gold chain, and Doc Martens knockoffs. Benavil is a courtier, or broker. He holds an official real estate license and calls himself an employment agent. Two thirds of the employees he places are child slaves. The total number of Haitian children in bondage in their own country stands at 300,000. They are the restavèks, the “stay-withs,” as they are euphemistically known in Creole. Forced, unpaid, they work in captivity from before dawn until night. Benavil and thousands of other formal and informal traffickers lure these children from desperately impoverished rural parents, with promises of free schooling and a better life.

The negotiation to buy a child slave might sound a bit like this:

“How quickly do you think it would be possible to bring a child in? Somebody who could clean and cook?” you ask. “I don’t have a very big place; I have a small apartment. But I’m wondering how much that would cost? And how quickly?”

“Three days,” Benavil responds.

“And you could bring the child here?” you inquire. “Or are there children here already?”

“I don’t have any here in Port-au-Prince right now,” says Benavil, his eyes widening at the thought of a foreign client. “I would go out to the countryside.”

You ask about additional expenses. “Would I have to pay for transportation?”

Bon,” says Benavil. “A hundred U.S.”

Smelling a rip-off, you press him, “And that’s just for transportation?”

“Transportation would be about 100 Haitian,” says Benavil, or around $13, “because you’d have to get out there. Plus [hotel and] food on the trip. Five hundred gourdes.”

“Okay, 500 Haitian,” you say.

Now you ask the big question: “And what would your fee be?” This is the moment of truth, and Benavil’s eyes narrow as he determines how much he can take you for.

“A hundred. American.”

“That seems like a lot,” you say, with a smile so as not to kill the deal. “How much would you charge a Haitian?”

Benavil’s voice rises with feigned indignation. “A hundred dollars. This is a major effort.”

You hold firm. “Could you bring down your fee to 50 U.S.?”

Benavil pauses. But only for effect. He knows he’s still got you for much more than a Haitian would pay. “Oui,” he says with a smile.

But the deal isn’t done. Benavil leans in close. “This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a ‘partner’? You understand what I mean?”

You don’t blink at being asked if you want the child for sex. “I mean, is it possible to have someone that could be both?”

Oui!” Benavil responds enthusiastically.

If you’re interested in taking your purchase back to the United States, Benavil tells you that he can “arrange” the proper papers to make it look as though you’ve adopted the child.

He offers you a 13-year-old girl.

“That’s a little bit old,” you say.

“I know of another girl who’s 12. Then ones that are 10, 11,” he responds.

The negotiation is finished, and you tell Benavil not to make any moves without further word from you. Here, 600 miles from the United States, and five hours from Manhattan, you have successfully arranged to buy a human being for 50 bucks.

The Cruel Truth

It would be nice if that conversation, like the description of the journey, were fictional. It is not.


December 21st, 2008


Comment #1 by Super Amanda on December 21, 2008 - 8:28pm

There was a teen aged boy chained to a fireplace in Tracy, California for a year who was tortured, enslaved, starved and abused by three upstanding members of the community and his own aunt.

Human slavery is in our own backyards.

Comment #2 by Jen Deaderick on December 21, 2008 - 10:03pm

I've been following this subject for years, and I honestly believe that this is one of the best articles I've seen about it. He very clearly and succinctly describes the situations in different areas, the difficulty in undoing the social patterns that perpetuate slavery. In particular, I appreciate that he discusses the slave mentality that keeps slaves "in their place." There is a sad parallel to women (and men) not leaving abusive relationships. To be flip for a moment, here is a concrete illustration of George Clinton's maxim: free your mind and your ass will follow.

Slavery has existed in one form or another for most of human history. I wonder if we can ever be rid of it.

Comment #3 by rebecca on December 21, 2008 - 10:56pm

Yes. I was very interested, not surprisingly, in the issue of the way feminists and evangelists have narrowed the discussion to sexual slaverly, and the way in which that narrowing has impacted the response to the crisis.

And yet, of course, it is so much bigger than this. And so awful. I too feel a futility, and yet, hopefully we will be able to push more forcefully for the human bill of rights, which includes freedom from enslavement. 


Comment #4 by Jen Deaderick on December 21, 2008 - 11:24pm

It shows that Margaret Atwood was prescient in the fictional events in Handmaid's Tale, in which the feminists and evangelists had banded together to ban porn.

It's all so overwhelming sometimes, isn't it?

Comment #5 by rebecca on December 21, 2008 - 11:28pm
Yes. She was. Love her for that and other things,
Comment #6 by Jen Deaderick on December 21, 2008 - 11:34pm

So many things.

Comment #7 by Super Amanda on December 22, 2008 - 12:51am

"It shows that Margaret Atwood was prescient in the fictional events in Handmaid's Tale, in which the feminists and evangelists had banded together to ban porn."

Exceedingly so, considering that a rapidly growing portion of the human slave trade now involves the internet and the child pornography industry.

Comment #8 by Renee on December 28, 2008 - 7:55am

The truth of the matter is that you don't have to get on a plane to fly to Hatti to witness human slavery in action. It happens in every Western country, we just don't acknowledge it for what it is. Everyday in suburban neighborhoods hidden behind wealth and opulence there are those that have been enslaved. In fact slaves are now cheaper than they have ever been and many use cruel physical abuse to keep people in bondage. As much as we like to believe that have evolved because slavery is not as visible as it once was, it is alive and thriving. The cruelty that we are able to visit on one another never ceases to amaze me.

Comment #9 by rebecca on December 30, 2008 - 9:34am

True, Renee. Here's a long and informative piece from Newsweek talking about just that--a couple in LA and their "maid" who earns $45 a month. Abolition must be on Obama's very long agenda.


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