Invisible: Slavery Today
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center presents the world's first museum-quality, permanent exhibition on the subjects of modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
The exhibition is entitled Invisible: Slavery Today. It occupies some 4,000 square feet in the Freedom Center's east pavilion on the third floor, and was made possible by generous underwriting gifts from the Skirball Foundation and Lois and Richard Rosenthal.
What can visitors expect to see? The overall design and "feel" of Invisible is that of a dingy warehouse in an unfamiliar city, filled with wood, metal and plastic containers -- shipping cartons for human beings. Through a variety of techinques and media, including videos, sounds and touch-screen prsentations, Invisible offers a comprehensive examination of slavery in the modern world through the life experiences of five individuals who were caught up in one of the five most common forms of exploitation: forced labor, bonded indenture, child slavery, sex trafficking and domestic servitude. The exhibition explores the causes of slavery, the economic forces that have contributed to its growth, and the response of government, the justice system and the general public to this scourge.
But Invisible is not just a grim walk through degradation and mistreatment. A major concluding section is devoted to antislavery activities underway around the world, especially by the Freedom Center's partners in the exhibition: Free the Slaves, Goodweave, International Justice Mission and Polaris Project. Visitors are also asked to make a personal commitment to be 21st Century Abolitionists in the cause of freedom.
If you are considering a visit to Cincinnati and the Freedom Center, put Invisible: Slavery Today on your "must-see" list. Early reviews are overwhelmingly positive, with most people saying it is unlike anything they've ever seen.
The Freedom Center is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. Access to Invisible is included in the admission.
Slavery in the 21st Century
Slavery still exists today. Whether it is called human trafficking, bonded labor, forced labor, or sex trafficking, it is present worldwide, including within the United States and, increasingly, in your local community.
An estimated 12 - 27 million people are caught in one or another form of slavery. Between 600,000 and 800,000 are trafficked internationally, with as many as 17,500 people trafficked into the United States. Nearly three out of every four victims are women. Half of modern-day slaves are children.
While definitions differ of what constitutes slavery in contemporary society, these factors are typically present:
- The victim is induced into slave-like exploitation through fraud, force or coercion;
- The enslaved are subject to physical abuse and/or psychological intimidation;
- Victims are not readily able to free themselves from their situation.
However, there are some crucial differences between historical and modern forms of slavery:
- There's no longer a need for legal ownership; people can be bought, sold and bartered among "owners" who take temporary possession;
- People caught up in slavery today can be purchased and sold for as little as $100 (compared to 10 times that much in the 1850s). As a result, people become "disposable;" i.e., easily replaceable.
- Slavery cuts across nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, age, class, education-level, and other demographic features
- Slavery's business side --- human trafficking --- is a global enterprise that can involve not just criminal gangs, but also corrupt law enforcement, drug dealers, and even families.
The Economics of Modern-day Slavery
At its heart, slavery is an inhuman perversion of a simple economic principle: the best way to maximize profits is by minimizing the cost of labor. In today’s global economy, the seemingly inexhaustible demand for cheap goods and services has created a vast, largely invisible market for easily replenished supplies of men, women and children who are forced to work against their will, for little or no pay, and under constant threat of violence or intimidation.
Forced labor is present throughout the world and takes many forms. The enslaved work as field hands harvesting crops, as seamstresses in back-alley sweatshops, as kidnapped fishermen or child soldiers, and as common laborers so deeply in debt that their obligation can never be repaid. Increasingly, the enslaved are women and children – mostly teenage girls, and younger – caught up in the global sex industry of prostitution, pornography and pedophilia.
According to the respected International Labor Organization (ILO), there are at least 12.3 million people in some form of forced labor --- in other words, about four of every 1,000 people in the global work force are enslaved. About 12% of these (1.4 million) are involved in commercial sexual exploitation.
The bulk of the ILO's estimate of 12.3 million in forced labor is in Asia, where some 9.5 million persons are in some form of exploitative agricultural, industrial or sex work. Slavery is also present in Latin and South America, in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa. Industrial and agricultural slavery is also present in the western industrialized nations, including the United States, but these countries are increasingly beset by commercial sex slavery.
An illegal and largely invisible market in trafficked humans exists around the world, fueled by graft and corruption, porous national borders, ineffective law enforcement and – increasingly – by the insatiable demand for sex.
Human trafficking --- the modern term for the slave trade --- is a multi-billion dollar business that is increasingly fueled by sexual exploitation. In 2005, the ILO estimated that total profits from the commercial sex industry approached just under $28 billion, and that overall, trafficking in humans has grown into a $32 billion business, second only to illicit drug sales.
All told, according to the ILO, approximately 2.45 million people are being trafficked in the world at any given moment. Nearly half of those being trafficked are for commercial sex exploitation and, increasingly, the victims are girls age 18 or younger.
Since profits derived from slave labor can be quite lucrative, there's no shortage of "entrepreneurs" looking to get into the business. In many instances, the slave trade is viewed as a profitable add-on to existing business in illicit drug trades and body organ trafficking.
Although organized crime gangs are involved in trafficking, much of the trade in humans is carried on by individuals and small groups of criminals Always vigilant to capitalize on opportunities, traffickers were busy in the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami in 2003, sweeping up suddenly orphaned children, and they were hard at work in Haiti, according the UNICEF and other relief agencies, within hours of the devastating earthquake in early 2010..
Unscrupulous labor traffickers round up desperate laborers in Mexico and Central America and help them enter the U.S., where they then entrap them in bonded labor situations. In Latin and South America, indigenous people are especially vulnerable to be entrapped as laborers in dangerous agricultural or industrial work. Increasingly, slave traders are specializing in “niche” businesses: sex tourism in Southeast Asia, prostitution in eastern Europe, American children as “actors” in porn videos.
Trafficking also arises from extreme poverty. It can be seen, heartbreakingly, in families selling their children because they can't afford another mouth to feed. Family problems create a source of ongoing supply for experienced traffickers, especially during economic downturns. Traffickers, often with police complicity, are known to prey on desperate parents by promising to arrange good paying jobs for their children or an opportunity to learn a trade or craft. In this way, untold thousands of vulnerable children have disappeared via the promise of a better life.
Most experts believe that slavery will exist as long as there are economic disparities – and unscrupulous individuals willing to exploit others for profit. But that doesn’t mean effective action isn’t possible. Slavery’s ugly presence can be reduced or eliminated through these steps:
- Raising public awareness of the existence of slavery in the global economy by, for example, listing products or services derived from forced labor;
- Pressing for national laws and local statutes that make human trafficking a separate and distinct crime;
- Reducing demand for commercial sex by increasing liabilities for those who purchase sex;
- Enforcing existing national prohibitions against slavery and human trafficking through increased reliance on transnational investigational work and data collection and sharing.
The Freedom Center is engaged in combating modern-day slavery in several ways.
- We are raising public awareness of the issue. Our new exhibition, Invisible: Slavery Today, is the world's first museum-quality exhibition on contemporary slavery. This is a highly-interactive, multi-media exhibition that explores the face of the enslaved through the life experiences of five individuals (and many others) who suffered as 21st Century slaves. Watch ths website for more information about Invisible.
- We provide historical context for the issue, using the lessons of the era of the Underground Railroad in antebellum America to help people grasp the idea that freedom is -- and always has been -- a struggle that requires constant attention and action.
- We collaborate with anti-slavery and counter-trafficking organizations on awareness building and on advocating strong laws at the federal, state and local levels. In 2009, for example, we helped direct a first-ever survey in Cincinnati of the existence of human trafficking. Click here to download a printable copy of the report. Links to many of these partners can be found elsewhere on the website.
- We are breaking new ground in creating modern-day slavery content for students, especially at the junior and high school levels. Among our projects is the writing of a new curriculum for 7th through 12th grades.
The remaing question is: what are you doing to abolish slavery in the world --- once and for all?
More Reading on Modern-day Slavery
There are dozens upon dozens of books and articles on modern forms of slavery and human trafficking. These are especially recommended, and they are available from the Freedom Center Gift Shop::