Of Human Bondage

By Denise Brennan,
who teaches anthropology at Georgetown University and is author of "What's Love Got to Do with It? Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic"
Thursday, June 12, 2008

A CRIME SO MONSTROUS

Face-to-Face With Modern-Day Slavery

By E. Benjamin Skinner

Free Press. 328 pp. $26

Freelance reporter E. Benjamin Skinner opens his book on modern slavery with a paradox: Though human bondage is now banned everywhere, "there are more slaves today than at any point in human history."

Skinner's assertion is based on worldwide estimates that he acknowledges are vague at best, their imprecision due to the very illegality of slavery. Yet it builds on a basic truth: Slavery not only continues today, it is thriving.

Whether 10 million, or 20 million, or 30 million people around the world are being forced to work, under threat of violence, without pay, Skinner considers the actual number "meaningless." When he set out to write his book, he decided that "I could not prove the definite number of slaves, and I would not try. But I might show what their slavery meant."

In "A Crime So Monstrous" Skinner reports from some of the key departure, transit and destination points in the modern slave trade, including Haiti, Sudan, Romania, Moldova, Turkey, India, the Netherlands and Miami. Much like 19th-century abolitionist accounts of slavery in the United States, his book is meant both to inform and to enrage -- and it succeeds on both counts.

To see slavery up close, Skinner posed as a buyer of humans for forced labor or sexual exploitation in Haiti, Romania and Turkey. In Sudan, he witnessed former slaves returning to villages from which they had been abducted years earlier. In India, he accompanied a gun-toting labor activist organizing quarry workers who had been forced into debt bondage.

By juxtaposing these widely differing cultural, economic and legal contexts, Skinner makes clear that no simple fix will eradicate slavery around the world. He describes himself as "overwhelmed" by the scale of bondage in India, where by some estimates between 10 million and 20 million people live in slavery. In one "unmapped hamlet" in Uttar Pradesh, he found that "every single man, woman, and child" was a slave because of generations of debt bondage.

Wherever poverty, greed, corruption and government inaction coincide, people are traded as commodities. Sometimes even modest aspirations -- to provide one's children with an education, for example -- can perpetuate slaving practices. In the rural Haitian village of Brésillienne, Skinner learned that all but one of its 32 families handed over one or more children to a "courtier," or middleman. Although "fear, shame, and regret poured out of the parents," Skinner writes, the system in which unpaid child laborers are sent to middle-class homes as "restavèks" (Creole for "rester avec," or stay with) is deeply entrenched in Haiti. Many of the children are physically and sexually abused. But with no jobs and no schools in Brésillienne, the parents' calculus comes into focus: Maybe the middleman's promises of sending their children to school will prove true?

In the book's opening pages, Skinner anticipates a big question his method may prompt: What did he do for those he found in bondage, besides write about them? Some journalists have bought slaves to set them free, but paying slave dealers raises thorny moral and logistical issues, particularly because it may fuel the capture of more slaves. Though Skinner posed at times as a potential buyer, he says he decided that his role was chiefly as a witness and he refused to put any money into the pockets of slave owners or brokers. When speaking with a woman from Eastern Europe who was trafficked into sexual exploitation in the Netherlands, he realized that "there was no way that I could understand what it meant to be a slave." But, he told her, he "hoped to get closer by going undercover, by listening to slaves and slave traders."

He listened well; his writing is most persuasive when he is bearing witness to poverty and powerlessness. Describing the smell of "feces and dead mice" in the entryway of a brothel in Bucharest, he writes that "it seemed there was some miasma here, wet and pungent. If, as Cicero said, slavery was death, then this was a charnelhouse."

But in the midst of this evocative reporting, Skinner jarringly shifts his pace and tone to examine the Bush administration's embrace of the human trafficking issue. To do this, he uses John Miller, former head of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, as a central character. It is important to show the long reach of the U.S. government's anti-trafficking policy, and of Miller's role in its crafting, but Skinner's four-chapter profile of a political appointee is fawning rather than revealing. As savvy as the young author is when face to face with criminals who buy and sell humans, he seems throughout the book to be naively captivated by Miller. Only in the epilogue do readers learn that in Skinner's opinion, Miller "oversaw a policy that was defective before his arrival, and after his departure."

For the coalition of religious conservatives who backed the administration's policy, Skinner writes, "the only slaves worthy of American attention . . . were prostitutes. And all prostitutes were slaves. Theirs was a circular logic that dumbfounded those who regularly aided real slaves, real prostitutes, and really enslaved prostitutes."

In addition, Skinner says, the administration's anti-slavery strategy focused on law enforcement and "lacked creative approaches to prevention," such as alleviating poverty. "Denying the central role of poverty in modern-day slavery," he writes, "is like denying the central role of gravity in rainfall."

Skinner seems to understand that bottom-up agents of change -- local organizations and individuals fighting slavery and forced labor -- must accompany top-down policies and laws. Yet he devotes far more ink to Miller's politicking in Washington than to grass-roots organizations such as Limyé Lavi ("Light of Life") in Haiti, which he praises for doing "remarkable work with scant funds." And while he recounts a young woman's story of sexual exploitation in Amsterdam in haunting detail, he writes only a couple of lines about the organization that she founded, Atalantas, which reaches out to women in the sex industry.

These agents of change have their work cut out for them. The firsthand accounts in "A Crime So Monstrous" make clear that human bondage, though illegal, is the product of economic structures and cultural norms. In Haiti, the head of the Brigade for the Protection of Minors, which "led the national effort to combat the restavèk system," keeps child slaves himself. But, he assured Skinner, "I don't rape them."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company