The New Face of Modern-Day Slavery

By Rafael Grillo Avila ’14

“When I heard the gunshots, I tried to run…Their faces were covered…They tied my legs and hands…I was thrown down and lost a tooth…He used me without marrying me, against my will… [his wife] would beat me with a stick.”  This is the story of Nyamut Aruop Buoi, kidnapped in 1996 from what is now South Sudan during the long period of civil war that plagued the nation.  Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who reported Nyamut’s story, also reported that during Sudan’s two decades of civil war – which some statistics say left over 300,000 dead – tens of thousands of Southern Sudanese Dinah people were kidnapped and taken for domestic slavery.  Tens of thousands remain enslaved to this day.

When asked to write an article for the Tory, I was posed the question, “Why should conservatives care about human trafficking?”  My response:  Why should anyone care about human trafficking?  Why should anyone care about anything for that matter?  Why do people care about education reform, environmental sustainability, or gender and race inequality?  Methods may differ, but liberals and conservatives both recognize that these are problems that affect our society and need to be solved.

Human trafficking is no exception.  Human trafficking is defined by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime as “the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person by use of force, coercion and other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.” This includes the use of child soldiers, forced prostitution, debt bondage, and forced marriage, among other things.  But to the layman, human trafficking – Nyamut’s story – is simply slavery by another name.  It is a deprivation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, a violation of fundamental human rights.  Why should we care?  Because, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This is more than just a truism.  According to Homeland Security Investigations Specialist Lynne Wilson-Bruchet, who recently spoke at Princeton, human trafficking is the second largest illicit industry behind the drug trade. It is also the fastest growing.  Why?  When the product is people, it can be sold time and time again, garnering higher profits for less costs – you only have to capture the person once.  Couple this with the billions governments spend on combating the drug and arms trade (billions that are not spent combating the trade in humans), and the fact that in some places to knowingly use forced labor is only a misdemeanor, and you have a low-risk, high-reward market in the buying and selling of people.

With such gains, who wouldn’t take advantage?  Earlier this month, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported that 2.4 million people across the world are trafficked as labor and sex slaves.  Kevin Bales, author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy and President of “Free the Slaves,” places the number at 27 million slaves in the world today, trafficked in places ranging from Thailand to Brazil, Mauritania to India.

In this sense, human trafficking becomes more than just the story of Nyamut.  It becomes the story of Bianca, reported by the International Labor Office (ILO), who at age sixteen was taken from her hometown of Romania and forced to work as a prostitute behind locked doors and barred windows in Macedonia.  It becomes the story of Mr. Kuku of Nepal, also reported by the ILO, who at the age of 14 went into debt bondage, working over 16 hours a day in order to afford everyday living expenses.  It even becomes the story of Somaly Mam, modern-day author and abolitionist, who was sold into sexual slavery by a man posing to be her grandfather. She was brutally raped daily and watched her brothel owners murder her best friend.

The injustice of human trafficking is universal.  Still, the original question may be rephrased.  Sure, human trafficking is wide reaching. Sure, human trafficking is terrible, but what can we do about it?   Why should we university students care about an issue that is so distant to us?

Because human trafficking is right in our backyard.  Moreover, through our political apathy and consumer choices, we may in fact be responsible for human trafficking whether we know it or not.  Look past the surface, and one discovers a home-grown criminal empire, thriving on the widening divide between the consumer and the evermore complicated supply chain that belies most of our services and consumer products.

The Department of Justice estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 women and children are trafficked into the United States each year, and in 2011 the FBI arrested 187 individuals on human trafficking charges.  According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, in Atlanta alone there are 200 to 400 girls in a state of forced sexual slavery, and it is predicted that a significant portion of these girls are born and bred in America.  In New Jersey, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center has received over 166 crisis calls regarding instances of human trafficking since 2007.

Despite the fact that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act acknowledges this situation and states that anyone under the age of 18 who engages in commercial sexual activities is being sexually exploited, as recently as 2011 only four states – New York, Connecticut, Washington, and Illinois – had laws that treated underage prostitutes as victims rather than criminals.  Michele Clark, part-time faculty at George Washington University, stated  in a recent conference hosted at Princeton that the reason for such staggering differences on the state level is that people still believe prostitution is for the most part voluntary, and come to accept it as a given in society.

Yet, after going to, browsing through the “Escort section,” seeing ads stating, “Sexy and petite Asian girls are here for what you need, available 24 hours a day,” and having meeting locations at “East Brunswick Route 18,” a lot of denial is necessary to still believe that what these girls are doing is willing and independent of anyone pulling strings.  Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, recently detailed how one girl in Brooklyn was seduced by a pimp and later forced to sleep with five to nine clients each night under threat of physical abuse if she did not meet a money quota.  Does this seem willing?

If we think that as Princeton students our hands are entirely clean of this issue, we should note that, as Kristof points out, Backpage is owned by Village Voice Media, of which private equity financier Goldman Sachs had a 16% stake.  Other significant stakeholders include Trimaran, Alta Communications, and Brynwood Partners.  As Kristof reported, none of these businesses seemed to question Backpage’s practices until after their stakes in Village Voice Media were publicly exposed.

Sex trafficking is seen as a (pardon the pun) “sexy” issue that we rally around and use to scapegoat others.  However, we must not forget that labor slavery is more commonplace, and it is a burden that we all share in our role as consumers of cheap products.  Hawaii’s Aloun Farms were reported two years ago to have enslaved 44 Thai nationals to grow the fruits and vegetables found in our markets.  According to reporter Kara Scharwath, P.F. Chang’s, Whole Foods, and Costco have all been found buying calamari from fishing operations that made extensive use of slave labor.  The list goes on, but it becomes clear that because we acquiesce to the laws in place and give our support to businesses that use slave labor, we unwittingly promote its perpetuity.  Why should we care about human trafficking?  Because, in the end, we may be partially responsible for it.

This shortcoming may just be a source of strength, however.  Since we have a stake in modern-day human trafficking, we have the power to end it.  In being responsible, we have the power to change legislation and business operations.

There are several ways Princeton students can start working for positive change on this issue. The first steps are to become educated on our supply chain, to know what the current legislation in the United States is, and what we can do about it.  One step we can take to end double victimization of survivors of sex trafficking is to urge Congress to pass four crucial pieces of anti-trafficking legislation up for renewal.  The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) has led to an increase in America’s efforts to protect victims and assist survivors. However, according to the Polaris Project, a national organization dedicated to ending human trafficking in the United States, it was allowed to expire in 2011.  Pressure is building to renew the law.  Other laws currently up for vote are the Business Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act, Strengthening the Child Welfare Response to Trafficking Act, and the Human Trafficking Reporting Act.  More information on these can be found through Polaris Project’s website,

Power also lies in “voting with your dollar.”  By choosing ethical businesses to support, you send a message that you demand ethical products.  Eventually, supply will follow consumer demand.  One useful iPhone and Android application currently in its Beta stage is entitled “Free2Work.” It allows you to scan barcodes of items and see measures companies take in preventing cases of slavery.  The system obviously has its flaws (companies can lie), but coupled with the right laws, this can prove to be a useful tool for the average person wishing to become involved in the abolitionist movement simply by making small scale changes in one’s everyday purchases.

On campus, Princeton Against Sex Trafficking (PAST) attempts to inform students regarding the issues of both labor and sex trafficking.  Many of the cited speakers – Michele Clark, Rachel Lloyd, Somaly Mam, and Lynne Wilson-Bruchet – have been guest speakers of PAST events.    Solving the problem is not easy and requires significant public-private partnerships.  Nonetheless, as agents partially (if unknowingly) responsible for slavery’s continued existence, it is our duty to take action. As students at one of the most renowned institutions in the world, we can be the leaders in creating lasting change.

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