(Note: This essay was originally published on June 27, 2020, by the Newport Daily News. It is the 10th and final essay in the series: Slavery in Rhode Island. For the complete series, go to www.zilianblog.com)
To many Americans the term “slavery” evokes an image of people of color in chains enduring the horrible middle passage or toiling in cotton fields in the antebellum South. However, not only in distant lands but also in our own country, slavery—in one form or another—thrives today.
Modern slavery is one of several terms used today to distinguish it from the earlier slavery that flourished for centuries. The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) (June 2019) states: “The United States considers ‘trafficking in persons,’ ‘human trafficking,’ and ‘modern slavery’ to be interchangeable umbrella terms that refer to both sex and labor trafficking.” The United Nations includes in these terms forced labor, debt bondage, and forced marriage.
At the end of the 20th century, increasing attention was paid to this growing scourge of modern slavery. In June 2000, the New York Times reported: “Trafficking in people is now the fastest-growing business of organized crime, and it is being run by new, barely understood networks that have sidelined traditional criminal syndicates,” according to Pino Arlacchi, then director general of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention.
To combat the trafficking in persons, the United States passed into law the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, which has been renewed by successive administrations. That same year the international community enacted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol), the first international legislation to define “trafficking in persons” and offer insight into the criminal system. As of March, 2019, 173 parties had ratified the Palermo Protocol and 168 countries had passed domestic legislation criminalizing human trafficking.
From a global perspective, the magnitude of the problem is stunning. The International Labour Organization of the UN gives these figures: 40.3 million people are victims of modern slavery which includes 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriages. Of the millions in forced labor, 16 million are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction, or agriculture, 4.8 million in sexual exploitation, and 4 million in labor controlled by state authorities. Women and girls account for 99% of the victims in the commercial sex industry. It also estimates that 150 million children are subject to child labor, almost one in ten children worldwide.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, in his cover letter to the TIP Report, focuses on victims in forced labor: “Right now traffickers are robbing a staggering 24.9 million people of their freedom and basic human dignity….”
The TIP Report offers typical examples of modern slavery. In Brazil, after victims join certain religious groups or cults, traffickers exploit them in forced labor in farming, factories, and restaurants. In Cambodia, women and girls who leave rural areas and come to tourist destination cities are exploited sexually by traffickers in massage parlors, karaoke bars, and beer gardens. In Ethiopia, traffickers may deceive parents living in rural areas into sending their children to major cities as domestic workers. In the United Kingdom, gangs force children to carry drugs. Here in the U.S., traffickers tend to exploit children in foster care by engaging them in sex trafficking.
In March the Wall Street Journal reported on sex trafficking networks in the United States and the many lawsuits being filed against major hotel chains, such as Hilton, Marriott, and Wyndham, for ignoring the sex trafficking at their hotels. The lawsuit by “S.Y.,” one of dozens filed across the country, states the hotels, including Hilton and Wyndham, profited from sex trafficking and that they were aware of it or should have been aware of it. At that time there were 40 lawsuits filed in federal courts, others in state courts, with dozens more to follow in the next year.
The lawsuits describe the common patterns. Rooms were paid for in cash, sometimes for weeks at a time. Many alleged victims were minors. The lawsuits assert that hotel staff should have recognized the signs of trafficking: bottles of lubricants, boxes of condoms, excessive requests for sheets and towels. Men came to the same rooms, often more than a dozen times each night, without luggage.
One accuser, “H.H.,” stated that a hotel staffer found her chained in the bathroom in one hotel and tied to a bed in another.
S. Y. filed her suit about three years after local police discovered her in a hotel room in 2016. They arrested her two pimps who had given her unlimited drugs and kept all her earnings.
She indicated: “I wasn’t chained here, but I had invisible chains holding me to these guys.”
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.
Crossette, Barbara. “Trafficking in People: World’s ‘Fastest-Growing Criminal Market.” International Herald Tribune, June 26, 2000.
Helplineri.com. Human Trafficking. https://www.helplineri.com/human-trafficking
Accessed June 24, 2020.
“International Day for the Abolition of Slavery 2 December.” https://www.un.org/en/events/slaveryabolitionday/index.shtml
Accessed June 24, 2020.
Ramey, Corinne. “Lawsuits Accuse Big Hotel Chains of Allowing Sex Trafficking.” The Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. https://www.state.gov/bureaus-offices/under-secretary-for-civilian-security-democracy-and-human-rights/office-to-monitor-and-combat-trafficking-in-persons/#:~:text=The%20Office%20to%20Monitor%20and,efforts%20and%20identifying%20global%20trends%2C
Accessed June 24, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. “Trafficking In Persons Report.” Washington, DC, June 2019.
“Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victims_of_Trafficking_and_Violence_Protection_Act_of_2000. Accessed June 24, 2020.