In 2014, Pope Francis and other religious leaders gathered at the Vatican and vowed to end modern-day slavery by 2020. Such wonderful news: a freedom deadline for all the precious souls held against their will in brothels, massage parlors, sweatshops, quarries, and other hellholes.
The faith VIPs – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish – had a plan. They’d inspire a torrent of prayers and push governments to mobilize against slavery. The prayers happened; the mobilization did not.
These dismal numbers cloud my memories of meeting ex-slaves in recent years. The Brit-turned-New Yorker who spoke in Philadelphia about escaping from the pimp who groomed and beat her. The antislavery marcher in Washington, who told me about fleeing forced labor on a fishing boat in Ghana. At Mukti Ashram in New Delhi, the giddy boys rescued from grueling days spent sewing clothes behind locked doors. At St. Catherine’s Home in Mumbai, the teenage girls freed from windowless brothels that welcome pedophiles. In hindsight, for every former slave who touched my heart, a new slave somewhere — including the United States — went unseen.
If decent people are ever going to stop contemporary slavery, the right starting point is to face up to our utter failure so far. In the years since scholar Kevin Bales ripped off the world’s blinders with his 1999 book, Disposable People, there’s been a gusher of antislavery laws, alliances, conferences, pledges, documentaries, reports, apps, hotlines, and prayers. Yet more women, men, and children are enslaved today than two decades ago.
Why this fiasco? Because the forces for good keep failing to target and demolish what drives this crime against humanity: huge profits with tiny risk. Slavery generates as much as $150 billion a year in illegal profits with virtually no risk that the criminals will get punished. For this horrific business to crumble, its kingpins must face severe penalties and meager profits.
Simply put, to end slavery you need to lock up and bankrupt hundreds of thousands of the enslavers. Bishops and imams can’t make that happen; presidents and prime ministers must.
Shamefully, the people with the power keep failing their duty. The State Department’s latest annual report on slavery-related crimes says there were only 7,045 convictions worldwide in 2017. It’s actually a twofold failure: too few convictions and too many light sentences. Yet when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo swaggered in front of news cameras to talk up that report, he didn’t even mention what stokes the problem – massive profits at minuscule risk – or acknowledge that slavery is rising. This is Teddy Roosevelt turned upside-down: Speak loudly and carry a selfie stick.
What’s needed is the kind of radical turnaround plan that Harvard’s Siddharth Kara offered in his extraordinary 2017 book, Modern Slavery. Kara’s core strategy is to squeeze the enslavers’ profits and make them fear financial ruin and imprisonment. His basics include long prison sentences, severe financial penalties, crackdowns on corrupt police, tight witness protection, and strict scrutiny of product supply lines. He calls for global slavery courts, strike forces that can cross borders, rapid-response teams for war zones, tight protections for foreign workers, anti-bigotry initiatives, and much more. Embracing this fierce plan would do what today’s abolitionists keep huffing and puffing and praying about. It would crush slavery.
Meanwhile, the big shots seem content to set goals. In 2015 the U.N. General Assembly included an end to slavery on its agenda of targets to hit by 2030. But unless this goal is linked to a disruptive strategy funded to the hilt, it will end up another bogus promise to millions of apparently disposable people.
Despite all the solemn words at the United Nations, the Vatican, and other elite spots, the civilized world hasn’t yet steeled itself to crush this abomination. So in the 21st century, tens of millions of unseen adults and children remain slaves due to two different kinds of people: profiteers without a conscience and leaders without a clue.