Slaves are cheap these days. Their price is the lowest it’s been in about 4,000 years. And right now the world has a glut of human slaves – 27 million by conservative estimates and more than at any time in human history, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Although now banned in every country, slavery has boomed in the past 50 years as the global population has exploded. A billion people scrape by on $1 a day. That extreme poverty combined with local government corruption and a global economy that leaps national boundaries has produced a surge in the number of slaves – even though in the developed world, that word conjures up the 19th century rather than the evening news.
“For an American audience, their conceptualization of slavery is locked into a picture from the past,” says Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, a nonprofit in Washington. “It’s fixed in the slavery of the deep South and it’s about African-Americans being enslaved on plantations with chains and whips and so forth.” Modern-day slavery has little of the old South. The majority of slaves are bonded laborers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal – workers who have given their bodies as collateral for debts that never diminish no matter how many years, or sometimes generations, the enslaved labor on. Some 14,000 people are trafficked into the United States annually, according to the US government, most forced into the sex trade, domestic servitude, or agricultural labor. At any one time, between 52,000 and 87,000 are in bondage. And much of that is in plain view, in towns and cities across the country, experts say. People simply don’t recognize it.