Human trafficking may be just the latest topic du jour among U.S. foreign policy elites and UN humanitarian types, but mention the underlying crime--slavery--to foreign officials and the reaction is often confused and explosive. "For God's sake, don't go talking about brutal slavery here," says Jay Kumar, the Social Secretary of Araria, one of the poorest districts in Bihar, the poorest state in India. Waving his finger, speaking from his one-room office building, Kumar, whose position required him to respond to allegations of child labor, is instead categorically denying that the two dozen recently freed child slaves that I had met in his district were ever in bondage.
Kumar explains: "You see, poor people are not rational, so I compare them to monkeys." He then told me a story. On a sweltering day, a mother monkey left her baby on the hot earth in order to climb a tree and keep from scalding her own feet. This, he said, is why parents give their children to human traffickers.
Since 2001, when I began investigating modern-day slavery worldwide, I found that while public officials always condemned slavery as an abomination, few acknowledged that it actually existed in their jurisdictions. Instead, "traditional caste relationships" were omnipresent, as were "intertribal abductions," "underage sex workers," mere "child laborers" or "backward poor people." But slavery, universally-recognized as a crime against humanity, was a chimera, a relic of a bygone era.
"We have no steel pens: everyone is free," says Kumar. "While it is not the highest virtues that govern the universe, it is not possible that slavery exists in this district." Yet, according to a May 2009 report of the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are 9.3 million forced laborers in Asia. The antislavery group Free the Slaves, the American wing of the world's oldest human rights organization, estimates that there are between 10 million and 20 million slaves in India alone, hundreds of thousands of whom come from Kumar's state. To be clear, neither group uses the term "slavery" loosely. Free the Slaves defines "slaves" as those forced to work, held through fraud, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence. Worldwide, there are more slaves today than at any point in human history. In India alone, there are probably more in bondage than in the rest of the world combined.
During five years of travel in over a dozen countries, I met hundreds of slaves, survivors, and human traffickers. I witnessed negotiations for the outright sale of human beings on four continents, and I was offered a child slave for $50 in Haiti. In northern India, bondage was never far below the surface. I found slavery in the unmapped quarry villages that ring Shankargarh, in the soot-choked, glass-producing city of Firozabad, in brick kilns near Allahabad. In Varanasi's red light district, I spoke with child prostitutes held in squalid conditions in single-cell brothels that reeked of human feces. According to an estimate issued by India's Central Bureau of Investigation this May, there are a million such child sex slaves across the country.
The Indian hand-knotted carpet industry is one of the few areas that has seen a possible drop in the number of slaves over the past decade thanks to international outcry and sustained local activism. Yet, while a handful of non-profits have freed thousands of slaves through raids and rehabilitation, hundreds of thousands more remain in bondage. I spoke with dozens of slaves, survivors, and alleged slave masters in the carpet belt of Uttar Pradesh, a state that contains some 8 percent of the world's poor. Here, traffickers, after luring children away from desperate parents, force their young victims to work for little or no pay in horrendous conditions. The spinning loom, or charakha was, to Mahatma Gandhi, "my sword," and "the symbol of India's freedom." Today, another type of loom is the unfortunate symbol of slavery in India.
A week before speaking with Jay Kumar, I met a 14-year-old named Jainandan, whose hard face could occasionally be coaxed into a smile. The boy was born to subsistence farmers in a Bihari village. As a child, he was shy, but loved to dance during local festivals. When he was nine, Changar, a teenage neighbor, approached the boy's parents with a tantalizing offer: he would teach Jainandan how to weave and provide for his family. Jainandan's parents sent him with Changar, who took the boy some 500 miles away to Handia, a town in neighboring Uttar Pradesh.
For four years, Jainandan lived in Handia, where he did indeed learn to weave. In fact, he was forced to weave every day from 4 AM until 11 PM, with one short break at 10 AM to eat and wash. At night, he and nine other boys slept in the loom. At first, the warp yarn would slice open his soft hands, and Raj Kumar, the plant's owner (no relation to the Bihari official), would pour scalding oil on the wounds to cauterize them. After several months, he lost significant feeling in his hands, developed thick calluses, and contracted a persistent respiratory infection from wool fibers and dust in the unventilated loom. When he failed to work hard enough, Kumar's father would beat him. On three occasions, Jainandan tried to flee. Each time, he was caught. After Jainandan's third and final attempt, Kumar tied the boy's hands to a pole, and beat him until he passed out.
According to Bihari officials, however, there is no slavery in India. The law forbids it. The attitude is hardly isolated. Today, there exist more than a dozen universal conventions and more than 300 international treaties banning slavery and the slave trade. Since 2000, the United States and other nations have passed more than 100 new laws against "human trafficking," a term of art, a euphemism for the modern-day slave trade. But eliminating slavery by flat does not eliminate the vile practice. The laws may be on the books, but a...