Cover Story

Let my people go

The abolitionists' lament is older than William Wilberforce-whose anti-slavery campaign brought transatlantic slavery to an end 200 years ago this month-but today 27 million people live on in captivity, their lives worth far less than any colonial era slave

Issue: "'Into captivity they shall go'," Feb. 24, 2007

Premila's parents sold their daughter for $18 on her 18th birthday. The buyer, from hundreds of miles away, said his Indian village had no good women to marry so he had to buy a wife. He took Premila as a concubine, then sold her into 10 grinding years of prostitution in two cities before rescuers returned the shattered woman to her home.

Premila is a modern slave, one of 27 million in the world today. Two hundred years ago, slaves were relatively scarce, expensive, and publicly owned by men holding title deeds to them. Today, they are plentiful and cheap like Premila-and much harder to spot.

This week Western countries celebrate the life of William Wilberforce, the pioneering abolitionist who labored 20 years to end the British slave trade, a fight he won on Feb. 23, 1807. Today's abolitionists are no less tenacious but find their work is different: Unlike in Wilberforce's time, slavery is illegal almost everywhere. Yet modern slavery flourishes because corrupt governments and law enforcers do not enforce the law.

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The type of slavery Wilberforce and his American contemporaries knew was chattel slavery, in which one man owned another human being. According to the abolitionist group Free the Slaves, a slave in the American South in 1850 cost $40,000 in today's dollars. Today, the average cost of a slave is $90. A growing world population with millions of poor means an ample supply of potential slaves that has driven down the price.

That means slaveholders may not need to keep slaves as a long-term, generational investment: If a slave falls ill or otherwise cannot work, he or she is easy to replace.

What does slavery in 2007 look like? Chattel slavery is now relatively rare, largely limited to parts of Africa. Most of today's slaves-about 20 million-are in debt bondage, and mostly in the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Others in places such as Southeast Asia and Brazil are contract laborers, lured by promises of well-paying jobs but forced to remain in harsh, menial conditions. Forced marriages enslave women and girls. Human trafficking, which ensnares 600,000 to 800,000 people a year, is the newest slave trade and the world's third-largest criminal business after drugs and arms dealing.

Bonded slavery works this way: A poor man takes a loan to pay for an emergency such as a funeral or family illness. He repays it with his labor, although unscrupulous lenders will not say for how long. Soon, as the original debt does not diminish, he realizes the lender has trapped him-and often his family-into working years or generations without pay.

Nagaraj was such a man. Desperate for work, he took a loan from a brick kiln owner who also bonded his wife and children. Nagaraj was devastated: At 12, he had worked with his parents for three years to pay off a debt, and now his family was in the same predicament.

Like his fellow slaves, Nagaraj and his family lived in a concrete cell at the brick factory. Six days a week, his family began work at 1 a.m., slogging 16 hours and working under the hot sun. He said he hated seeing his children work as hard as the adults and fall ill, growing up as another man's property. If workers complained or bolted, the kiln owner beat them savagely.

In 2004, the Virginia-based International Justice Mission (IJM) worked with local authorities to raid the kiln, freeing 138 people, including Nagaraj and his family. The kiln owner faces prosecution, while Nagaraj and his wife now run their own brick-making business and send their children to school.

Nagaraj's case is the kind IJM's workers see often in South Asia. As modern-day abolitionists, IJM hires lawyers and human-rights advocates to fill a crucial if ironic niche in fighting slavery: They work to ensure local officials enforce laws.

Despite ample laws at the local, national, and international level against bonded labor and other forms of slavery, each case involves a long and hard fight. Where police and authorities are corrupt, they let the powerful prey on the poor, says IJM senior vice president of interventions, Sharon Cohn: "If a young girl in a poor community is a victim of sexual assault, the rapist often has better connections with the police than the family will," she told WORLD.

In slave terms, if people come cheap, she says, then slaveholders should pay dearly in other ways-with jail time. Cohn says it takes grit and tenacity to pursue such prosecutions, where bonded labor easily blurs into sex trafficking. In IJM's biggest success, staff and Cambodian police raided brothels in Svay Pak. They rescued little girls between the ages of 5 and 10. The pedophiles caught running the brothels have received prison sentences.

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