The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today

The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today, written by Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, and Ron Soodalter, is now being published in a paperback edition.  Now is the time to get this book and become educated about modern-day slavery in America.  You can purchase The Slave Next Door at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million.  I have not yet read this book, although I am planning to, but Anna, from Free the Slaves, provided the following information and kindly asked me to share it on my blog.

Here’s a description of the book . . .

In this riveting book, authors and authorities on modern day slavery Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter expose the disturbing phenomenon of human trafficking and slavery that exists now in the United States. In The Slave Next Door we find that slaves are all around us, hidden in plain sight: the dishwasher in the kitchen of the neighborhood restaurant, the kids on the corner selling cheap trinkets, the man sweeping the floor of the local department store. In these pages we also meet some unexpected slaveholders, such as a 27-year old middle-class Texas housewife who is currently serving a life sentence for offences including slavery. Weaving together a wealth of voices—from slaves, slaveholders, and traffickers as well as from experts, counselors, law enforcement officers, rescue and support groups, and others—this book is also a call to action, telling what we, as private citizens, can do to finally bring an end to this horrific crime.

The following was written by Ron Soodalter, co-author of The Slave Next Door . . .

“A Blight on the Nation: Slavery in Today’s America”

The American humorist Will Rogers once said, “It ain’t that we’re so dumb; it’s just that what we know ain’t so.”

Certain things we know to be true. We know that the South kept slaves, and the North fought a righteous war of liberation. We know that the slave trade was legal right up to the Civil War. We know that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all the slaves, and that the United States has been slavery-free ever since. These things we know – and none of them are true.

On the other hand, most of us do not know that slavery not only exists throughout the world today; it flourishes. Slavery is legal nowhere, yet it is practiced everywhere. With an estimated 27 million people in bondage worldwide, this is twice as many people as were taken in chains from Africa during the entire 350 years of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. In seeking to place blame, we’re tempted to point to the “emerging nations” as the culprits, whereas in fact slavery exists in such “civilized” countries as England, France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Ireland, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, China…and the United States. Most Americans are clueless that slavery is alive and flourishing right here, thriving in the dark, and practiced in many forms in places you’d least expect.

As a student of history, I’d always assumed that slavery ended with the Thirteenth Amendment. Some years back, I had written nearly an entire book on the pre-Civil War slave trade when I stumbled on an account of slavery – in present-day America! My first response – a common one, as it turns out – was denial: “No way. Slavery has had no place here since the time of Lincoln.”

Only after extensive research did I discover that slavery has always existed on this continent, from the days of its European discovery right up to the present day. Christopher Columbus enslaved the Taino Indians, setting a precedent that was followed by every European power to claim land in the New World. Slavery became the social and economic order. After the Civil War, and for decades right up to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, planters practiced a form of debt bondage known as peonage, binding workers and their families to the land in an unending cycle of slavery. For over sixty years, our own government has enabled worker abuse and slavery through the mismanagement of its “guest worker” program. And now, with the global population more than tripled since World War II, and with national borders collapsing around the world, people – in their desperate quest for a way to survive – have become easy targets for human traffickers. And once again, America is a prime destination.

So how many slaves are we talking about? According to a U.S. State Department study, some 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States from at least 35 countries and enslaved each year. Some victims are smuggled into the United States across the Mexican and Canadian borders; others arrive at our major airports daily, carrying either real or forged papers. The old slave ship of the 1800s has been replaced by the Jumbo Jet. Victims come here from Africa, Asia, India, Latin America, and the former Soviet Republic. Overwhelmingly, they come on the promise of a better life, with the opportunity to work and prosper in America. Many come in the hope of earning enough money to support or send for their families. In order to afford the journey, they fork over their life savings, and go into debt to people who make promises they have no intention of keeping, and instead of opportunity, when they arrive they find bondage. They can be found – or more accurately, not found – in all 50 states, working as farmhands, domestics, sweatshop and factory laborers, gardeners, restaurant and construction workers, and victims of sexual exploitation. These people do not represent a class of poorly paid employees, working at jobs they might not like. They exist specifically to work, they are unable to leave, and are forced to live under the constant threat and reality of violence. By definition, they are slaves. Today, we may call it human trafficking, but make no mistake: It is the slave trade.

Nor are native-born Americans immune from slavers; many are stolen or enticed from the streets of their own cities and towns. Some sources, including the federal government, estimate in the hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens – primarily children – at risk of being caught in slavery annually. Although these figures may be uncertain, even inflated, the precise number of slaves in the United States, whether trafficked in from other countries or enslaved from our own population, is simply not known. The simple truth is, we’re looking at a crime that lives in the shadows; it’s hard to count what you can’t find.

What is particularly infuriating is the fact that this is a crime that, as a rule, goes unpunished. For the moment, let’s accept the government’s estimate of about 17,000 foreign nationals trafficked into slavery in the United States per year. Coincidentally there are also about 17,000 people murdered in the US each year. The national success rate in solving murder cases is about 70%; around 11,000 murders are “cleared” annually. But according to the US government’s own numbers, the annual percentage of trafficking and slavery cases solved is less than 1%. In 2007, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division obtained 103 convictions for human trafficking, with an average sentence of 9 years.

And to further complicate matters, when they are rescued, slavery survivors often deny their situation.  There are several reasons for this: the language barrier, a deep sense of shame, fear for their lives and those of their families in their country of origin, and a sense of obligation to pay their debt. In addition, the traffickers work to brainwash them to fear the police and immigration officials. And in some instances, they come to identify with their keepers.

We don’t yet know how President Obama will respond to the human trafficking crisis; it’s too soon to tell. But we do know that the response under the Bush Administration was inadequate on any number of levels. In a speech on trafficking, Bush once stated, “We’re beginning to make good, substantial progress. The message is getting out: We’re serious. And when we catch you, you’ll find out we’re serious. We’re staying on the hunt.” Strong words. But the unvarnished truth is, with less than 1% of the bad guys apprehended, and less than 1% of the victims freed, the flow of human “product” into America continues practically unchecked.

Finding out about the slave next door is the kind of knowledge you can’t “unlearn”; the only question is, what do you do with the information once you have it? It’s a question we must all answer for ourselves. We tend to think of our America as the country where slavery has no place; the dire truth is, we are pretty far from freedom, and it will take a lot of work and dedication – by the government, and by us – to make it so.

by Ron Soodalter, co-author (w/ Kevin Bales)

The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today




Here’s an excerpt from the book . . .



Slavery probably crept into your life several times today, some before you even got to work. Rolling off your bed, standing on that pretty hand-woven rug, maybe you threw on a cotton t-shirt. In the kitchen did you make a cup of coffee, spoon in a little sugar, and then kick back with a chocolate croissant and your laptop to check the headlines? After a shower, maybe you drove to the station. Waiting for the train, perhaps you made a couple of calls on your cell phone.

All in all a normal day, but slavery was involved in almost every step. Hundreds of thousands of rugs are hand-woven by slaves in the “carpet belt” of India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Cotton is grown with slave labor in India, West Africa, and Uzbekistan, the world’s second largest producer. Coffee cultivation also encompasses slave labor, mainly in Africa. Enslaved Haitian workers harvest the sugar in the Dominican Republic, the largest exporter of sugar to the U.S. The chocolate in that croissant can also be the product of slavery, from the cocoa farms of the Ivory Coast. Even the steel and iron in your car can be polluted by slavery. From a quarter to a half of all U.S. imports of raw iron in different forms come from Brazil.[i] In that country slaves burn the forests to make charcoal, which in turn is used to smelt ore into pig iron and iron into steel. In America, the single largest consumer of Brazilian iron and steel is the automotive industry, though the construction industry also uses a large amount. Pressed against your ear, that cell phone keeps you connected to friends and family, but also to slavery. Cell phones (and laptops and other electronics) just don’t work very well without a mineral called tantalum. In the Democratic Republic of Congo poor farmers are rounded up by armed gangs and enslaved to dig tantalum out of the ground. Every one of us, every day, touches, wears, and eats products tainted with slavery. Slave-made goods and commodities are everywhere in our lives, but, paradoxically, in small proportions. The volume is unacceptable, but rarely critical to our national economy or quality of life. And slavery in our lives is not restricted to cotton, coffee, cocoa, steel, rugs, and cell phones. The list goes on and on, with new commodities and products turning up all the time. Some of them, such as shrimp, might surprise you.


Huckleberry Finn it ain’t.

If there is an archetypical picture of rural youth, it is the barefoot lad with the fishing pole over his shoulder. The dusty riverbanks, the lazy heat, the straw dangling from his lip, it all says that halcyon days are possible in our youth. Today even this picture out of Mark Twain is shot through with bondage. Across Africa and Asia children are enslaved to catch, clean, package, and dry fish. They feed a global demand for everything from shrimp cocktail to cat food. One of the world’s largest consumers of seafood is Japan, but the U.S. isn’t too far behind. Americans imported 2.5 million tons of seafood in 2006, worth over $13 billion.[ii] And when it comes to shrimp, the US imports significantly more than the seafood-loving Japanese. Americans love shrimp, and the little crustacean that was once an expensive specialty food is now as ubiquitous as chicken. More than three million tons of frozen shrimp were imported to the U.S. in 2006.[iii] The huge demand for shrimp in the U.S. and other rich countries has generated a gold rush along the coastlines of the developing world. From India to Bangladesh, from Indonesia to Ecuador, Guatemala and Brazil, coastal forests, mangrove swamps, and natural beaches are ripped up to build hundreds of thousands of acres of shrimp farms. In all of these places adults and children are enslaved to cultivate and harvest the shrimp.[iv] In some cases whole families are caught in debt bondage slavery, in others children are kidnapped and hustled off to shrimp and fish farms on remote islands. Children are regularly enslaved in fishing and shrimping, since kids can do the work and they are easier to enslave and control.

In Bangladesh, boys as young as eight are kidnapped and taken out to remote islands like Dublar Char off the southwest coast. Sold to the fishing crews for about $15, they are set to work processing fish on shore for 18 hours a day, seven days a week. If the boats return with a large catch they might work several days with no sleep at all. Like robots they clean, bone, and skin fish; shell mussels, shrimp and crab, and wash squid to remove the ink. Other children sort, weigh, check, and load the haul, processing and preparing the fish for freezing and shipment. The slaveholders sexually abuse the boys and beat them regularly. They get little food, no medical care, and sleep on the ground. If they sicken or are injured and die, they are thrown into the ocean.[v] Dublar Char was raided and the children freed in 2004 when researchers linked to the US anti-slavery group Free the Slaves discovered the situation. They worked with the State Department’s anti-trafficking office to bring diplomatic pressure on the Bangladeshi government, which led to a raid by military police. (The local police were on the take from the gangs running the island).


No one knows how many other remote islands conceal such slave camps. Much of the fish and shrimp from these islands enters the global markets and then comes to the U.S. Dublar Char is just one example of the slave operations that supply our hunger for seafood. Around the island of Sumatra in Indonesia the sea is dotted with what appear to be ramshackle rafts. They are actually fishing platforms, crudely lashed together and moored up to twenty miles off the coast. There are some 1,500 fishing platforms in this region, each holding three to ten children whose only avenue of escape is a twenty-mile swim. Promised a good job, they are left on the platform to cast nets, catch fish, and clean and dry the catch. In heavy weather the platforms can break up, children can be swept overboard, or they might simply fall through the holes in the rough bamboo deck. On irregular visits, the boss collects the fish and administers beatings to increase productivity. As in Dublar Char and so many other places, the children are sexually abused, and if they become ill, there is no relief. If they die of illness or injury, they are simply rolled into the water. The revenues from Indonesian fish exports reached $5 billion in 2006; America is one of the top destinations for frozen shrimp, canned tuna, tilapia and sea crab from that country.[vi]

[i] See: Michael Smith and David Voreacos, “The Secret World of Modern Slavery,” Bloomberg Markets, December 2006.

[ii] See report of National Marine Fisheries Service, at Accessed Aug. 2007.

[iii] Shrimp imports also reported at:

[iv] See for example, “Dying for your dinner” Environmental Justice Foundation, accessed at; and Report No. 32 on Forced Labor in Burma, International Labor Organization, accessed at

[v] Report on Indonesian Fishing Platforms, Anti-Slavery International, 1998.

[vi] See: Accessed Aug. 17, 2007.