21st Century Slave Trade

Written by David Batstone
sex trade

This except is taken from Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade — And How We Can Fight It (HarperSan Francisco, 2007) by David Batstone.

With some 27 million people enslaved around the world, human trafficking generates $31 billion annually and rivals the illegal weapon and drug trade as the top criminal activity globally.

USF Professor David Batstone traveled to five continents last year to investigate the thriving commerce in human beings. While he prepared emotionally for this experience to bring him to the depths of despair, he said he found a silver lining: a new generation of abolitionists committed to the fight for human freedom. The following is an excerpt from his new book, Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade—and How We Can Fight It.

TWENTY-SEVEN MILLION SLAVES exist in our world today.

Girls and boys, women and men of all ages are forced to toil in the rug loom sheds of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Rome, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa.

Go behind the façade in any major town or city in the world and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings. You may even find slavery in your own backyard.

For several years my wife and I dined regularly at an Indian restaurant near our home in the Bay Area. Unbeknownst to us, the staff at Pasand Madras Indian Cuisine who cooked our curries, delivered them to our table, and washed our dishes were slaves.

It took a tragic accident to expose the slave trafficking ring. A young woman found her roommates, 17-year-old Chanti Prattipati and her 15-year-old sister Lalitha, unconscious in a Berkeley home. Carbon monoxide emitted from a blocked heating vent had poisoned them. The roommate called their landlord, Lakireddy Reddy, the owner of the Pasand restaurant where the girls worked. Reddy owned several restaurants and more than 1,000 apartment units in Northern California.

When Reddy arrived at the girls’ apartment, he declined to take them to a hospital. Instead, he and a few friends carried the girls out of the apartment in a rolled up carpet and put them into a waiting van. When the men tried to force the roommate into the van as well, she put up a fierce fight.

Free to PlayA local resident, Marcia Poole, was passing by in her car at that moment and witnessed a bizarre scene: several men toting a sagging roll of carpet, with a human leg hanging out. She slowed her car to take a closer look, and was horrified to watch the men attempt to force a young girl into the van. Poole jumped out of her car to stop the men. Unable to do so, she stopped another passing motorist and implored him to dial 911 and report a kidnapping in progress. The police arrived in time to arrest the abductors.

Chanti Prattipati was pronounced dead at a local hospital. A subsequent investigation uncovered that Reddy and several members of his family used fake visas and false identities to traffick as many as 500 Indian adults and children into the United States. They worked as waiters, cooks, and dishwashers at the businesses Reddy owned. He forced the laborers to work long hours for minimal wages, money which they returned to him as rent to live in one of his apartments. Reddy threatened to turn them into the authorities as illegal aliens if they tried to escape. Reddy was eventually sentenced to 97 months in prison and required to pay $2 million in restitution.

As many as 200,000 people live enslaved at this moment in the United States, and an additional 17,500 new victims are trafficked into our borders each year. More than 30,000 more are transported through this country on their way to other international destinations. U.S. Department of Justice attorneys have prosecuted slave trade activity in 91 cities across the United States and in nearly every state of the nation.

The commerce in human beings today rivals drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade for the top criminal activity on the planet. The slave trade sits at number three on the list, but is gaining on its competitors. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) projects that the slave trade generates $9.5 billion in revenue each year, while the International Labor Office (ILO) estimates a number closer to a whopping $32 billion annually. Whichever figure is closer to the mark, no one doubts that slave commerce is booming. “In terms of profits, it’s on a path to overtake drugs and arms trafficking,” says Barry Tang, an Immigration and Enforcement attaché with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

bus stop Many people bristle to hear the word “slave” used to describe a modern practice of exploitation. Deeply engrained in the collective psyche of Western culture is the notion that slavery ended in the 19th century. It certainly was a momentous day in 1833 when the British Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave freedom to all slaves held captive in the Empire. Likewise, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War, left no ambiguity to the legal standing of slavery in America. The establishment of laws that criminalized the slave trade meant a major advancement in the cause for human freedom. Though slavery persisted for decades thereafter, legislation gave abolitionists an effective tool to hold slaveholders accountable. Abolition laws eventually spread to nearly every nation in the world.

In our own day, however, a thriving black market in human beings has emerged once again. It is a criminal enterprise involving both local scoundrels and sophisticated international syndicates. Corruption among law enforcement agents and government officials play a key role in its success. And it’s not limited to one specific region of the world—it respects no borders. Due to all these factors, modern slavery cannot be eliminated with a single stroke of the pen like Abraham Lincoln achieved when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Indeed, more slaves are in bondage today than were bartered in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Nowhere has its impact been felt more brutally than on children in underdeveloped nations. Slaveholders prey on the defenseless, and children so easily become vulnerable. A 2004 U.N. survey titled “Ten Million Children Exploited for Domestic Labor” found 700,000 children forced into domestic labor in Indonesia alone, with staggering numbers as well in Brazil (559,000), Pakistan (264,000), Haiti (250,000), and Kenya (200,000). “These youngsters are usually ‘invisible’ to their communities, toiling for long hours with little or no pay and regularly deprived of the chance to play or go to school,” the report states.

That “invisible” tag often gets attached to descriptions of modern slavery. Just as I never suspected that my favorite restaurant had become a hub for a trafficking ring, slavery likely crosses our path on a regular basis without our awareness. We may pass a construction site and never think twice whether the laborers work of their own volition. Or we might drive along city streets at night, see young girls on a street corner peddling their bodies, and wonder how they ever could “choose” such a life.

That’s the paradox: slavery is in reality not invisible. Except in rare circumstances, slaves toil in the public eye. To learn that slaveholders press children into forced labor in the cacao plantations of the Ivory Coast may not surprise us. But we regard it unthinkable that an otherwise upstanding citizen might be a slaveholder.


KIM MESTON WISHES that she had not been so invisible to her New England community. In a rural town near Worcester, Mass. the minister of the local church used her as his domestic sex slave for five years without raising suspicion in the community. Kim’s parents were Tibetan exiles living in a refugee camp in southern India. When Kim was in her teens, her sister’s husband introduced the family to a church minister visiting from the United States. He offered to bring Kim to America where he would provide a formal education and opportunities for a better life. “He told my parents that he would treat me as his own daughter,” Kim recounts.

Her brother-in-law lobbied the family persuasively to let Kim go. He even offered to accompany her to Delhi where he could help her to secure a visa to travel to the United States. In the ultimate betrayal, the brother-in-law made his own financial arrangement with the minister to traffick Kim.

At the age of 16, Kim began a double life in America. Everything would have appeared normal to the casual observer—she attended the local high school, ran on the track team, and attended church on Sundays. The minister even had a wife and a stepdaughter living in his home. But behind closed doors, she became the household servant, doing nearly all the cooking, housecleaning, ironing, and even tending the church grounds. Moreover, the minister sexually abused Kim on a frequent basis over a five-year period.

The minister threatened to have Kim’s Tibetan family back in India thrown into jail if Kim told her school friends about her treatment. So she suffered in silence, and no one in the community thought to ask how she might be faring. They simply assumed the best intentions of the minister and his family. “His deception was well constructed,” notes Kim. “The minister was a pillar in the community and I was viewed as the poor child from the Third World who was the lucky beneficiary of his generosity.”

abduct Finally, at the age of 21, Kim escaped her tormentor. She initially planned to run away and never turn back. Yet she received news from her family in India that the minister had trafficked two of her cousins into the United States in order to take her place.

Kim mustered the courage to take her case to the local police. The minister was arrested, convicted, and sent to jail. Today Kim owns a retail store in the Boston area and volunteers her time to prevent more vulnerable women from falling into sexual exploitation and enslavement.

To write this book, I conducted hundreds of interviews with young girls from Cambodia, Thailand, Peru, India, Uganda, South Africa, and Eastern Europe. I encountered this essential story­line time and again. Of those individuals extracted out of impoverished countries and trafficked across international borders, 80 percent are female and 50 percent are children.

Widespread poverty and social inequality ensure a pool of recruits as deep as the ocean. Parents in desperate straits may sell a child, or at least be susceptible to scams that will allow the slave trader to take control of their sons and daughters. Young women in vulnerable communities will be more likely to take a risk on a job offer in a far-away destination. The poor are apt to accept a loan that the slave trader later can manipulate to steal away their freedom. All of these paths carry unsuspecting recruits into the supply chains of slavery.

“The supply side of the equation is particularly bleak,’” says U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). “While there are 100,000 places in the developed world for refugee resettlement per year, 50 million refugees and displaced persons exist worldwide today. This ready reservoir of the stateless presents an opportunity rife for exploitation by human traffickers.”


IN PREPARATION FOR my journey to monitor modern global slavery, I had steeled myself emotionally to end up in the depths of depression and despair. To be honest, I made some unpleasant stops there. The day I went undercover to investigate a brothel in Phnom Pehn, for instance, broke my heart. A brothel owner invited me to take my pick of any one of the 13-year-old girls that crowded the sofas in front of me. A few extra bucks and I could have two of them for the night, he offered. I could not bear to think of these little girls passing through this ritual a dozen times each night.

But my journey did not end at the station of despair. The prime reason: I met a heroic ensemble of abolitionists who simply refuse to relent. I felt like I had gone back in time and had the great privilege of sharing a meal with a Harriet Tubman or a William Wilberforce or a Fredrick Douglass. Like the abolitionists of old, these modern heroes refuse to accept a world where one individual can be held as the property of another.

Kru Nam is one of those abolitionists who operates on the front lines in the fight against sex slavery. She is a painter who decided to use her natural gift to bring healing to street kids in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Once she turned the kids loose with paintbrushes, they created a series of disturbing images that added up to a horror story. Kru Nam soon realized that most of the kids came from Burma, with a sprinkling of Laotians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians. Painting became a way they could tell her how they had arrived on the streets of Chiang Mai.

The Burmese boys spoke of a well-dressed, Thai gentleman who visited their village accompanied by a 14-year-old Burmese boy who wore fine-tailored clothes and spoke Thai fluently. The man explained to parents that he was offering scholarships for young boys to attend school back in Thailand. Though the tribal people of Burma are reluctant to part with young girls, they give more license for sons to travel afar in search of a livelihood. Many families agreed to let their sons go with the Thai man. Once they reached Chiang Mai, the Thai man immediately sold them to owners of sex bars and brothels.

The boys living on the streets were the lucky ones; they had escaped. They told Kru Nam that many more boys remained captive in the sex bars. Her blood boiled. She could not stand by and do nothing.

Kru Nam did not exactly have a plan when she marched into the sex bar for her first raid. Only her mission was clear: rescue as many of the young boys that she could find. She did not even attempt to negotiate with the owner; she knew better than to waste her time. But to her disappointment, only six boys sat at tables entertaining the male customers. The other boys were out on “dates” with the johns. She had no need for histrionics. One by one she approached a table where a boy sat and calmly said, “Let’s go, I’m taking you out of here.” Several moments later, she was leading six little boys out the door and to her safe house in Chiang Mai.

Soon she organized street teams to scourge the night market of Chiang Mai and connect to young children recently departed off the bus from the northern Thai-Burmese border. Recruiters for the sex bars also trolled the streets on the hunt for vulnerable kids. It became a life-and-death contest to find them first.

One day it struck Kru Nam that if she moved upstream before the kids hit Chiang Mai she would have an edge over the recruiters. So she moved about 40 miles north to the border town of Mae Sai, a major thoroughfare for foot traffic between Burma and Thailand. Nearly 60 boys and girls today find safe refuge each night at Kru Nam’s shelter. Kru Nam is irrepressible. She does not have a large organization standing behind her—a skeletal staff of three assists her and she receives modest funding from a tiny non-governmental agency based in Thailand. What she does have is a burning passion to rescue young boys and girls so that they do not fall into the control of slaveholders.

Kru Nam does not know Lucy Borja, who rescues girls and boys forced into the brothels of Lima, Peru, nor has she met Padre Cesare Lo Deserto who steals trafficked girls away from the mafiosos of Eastern Europe. But she shares a special calling with these characters whose stories are featured in this book. Not one of them went out looking for slavery. Each simply reached out a compassionate hand to a refugee in need or a homeless street child, and it exposed them to the ugly undercurrent of human trafficking. Their passage from a single act of kindness to fighting for justice on a grander scale is the quintessential story of the abolitionist.

To inspire others to join their movement is the overriding purpose for writing this book. Although Kru Nam is brave and resourceful, she cannot single-handedly stop sex trafficking in Thailand. The size and scope of her project is about the norm for abolitionist organizations. They sorely need reinforcements, a new wave of abolitionists, to join them in the struggle.


ALL OF US wonder how we would have acted in the epic struggles of human history. Imagine we lived in rural Tennessee in 1855 and Harriet Tubman came to our door. “We are smuggling fugitive slaves across an underground railroad, and we need safe houses where they can receive shelter, food and rest. Will you help us?” she might have said. If Harriet Tubman came calling, would we have stood up and been counted amongst the just?

Or what if we were in the company of Jesuits who established a mission in the New World in 1624? The Spanish slave traders warn us to dismantle our mission where the natives work and keep their tribal structure intact. “We control this territory,” they would have said, “and you are undermining our lucrative trade in natives.” Would we have stood up and been counted amongst the just?

We live right now at one of those epic moments in the fight for human freedom. We no longer have to wonder how we might respond to our moment of truth. It is we who are on the stage and we can change the winds of history with our actions.

A bit overdramatic? I do not know any other way to express the urgency of rescuing one million children whom UNICEF estimates are forced today to sell their bodies to sexual exploiters. In a single country, Uganda, nearly 40,000 children have been kidnapped and violently turned into child soldiers (boys) and sex slaves (girls). In South Asia each day millions of children are forced to crush rocks in a quarry or roll cigarettes in a factory. The destinies of children around the globe hang in the balance, and they are powerless to break free.

As Edmund Burke presented the challenge so eloquently two centuries ago, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing.”