On Today’s Slavery.

The Slave Market, by Gustave Boulanger
The Slave Market, by Gustave Boulanger

Serious post today, folks.

While writing Shard & Shield, I spent a lot of time researching Greco-Roman slavery, as slavery is integral to one of the cultures in the story. Research always leads one down unexpected roads, and I learned a lot about slavery in other areas of the world and in world history, too.

Persian slave, from the 1893 book Central Asia: Travels in Cashmere, Little Thibet and Central Asia.
Persian slave, from the 1893 book Central Asia: Travels in Cashmere, Little Thibet and Central Asia.

Most Americans, hearing the word “slavery,” think of the African trade to the American south, and they think it ended with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. That’s foremost in our cultural awareness — but it’s not quite the truth. In fact, slavery is far, far from ended.

There are more slaves today than at any previous period in world history.

An estimated 27 million individuals are enslaved today, all over the world — and about 200,000 of them are in the United States.

Over the entire 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade, 13.5 million people were taken out of Africa. That’s equal to just half the the world’s slave population today.

“Slavery’s Global Comeback”

And this isn’t just not-paid-enough-for-their-work, this is sale or abduction, forced labor and forced sex, without pay and with torture for non-compliance. Yes, it’s a real problem.

Sex Slavery

I came across an interview with an adolescent girl rescued from a Cambodian brothel. She’d been drugged and abducted from her village. She awoke in a brothel. If she did not meet her quota of men per day, she was tortured with beatings and electric shocks including a cattle prod in her vagina. Four times she was “sewn up” (without anesthetic, of course) and resold as a virgin to clients who like that sort of thing.

She’s not alone. A few minutes of research shows reports of girls as young as 8 being required to service as many as 20 men per day, many sex tourists looking for violent thrills they can’t get at home, or face hideous beatings.

This is why, when somebody whines that a lack of free birth control or access to abortion is “sexual slavery,” I tend to disagree. Emphatically. These girls are whipped with cables and shocked and disfigured and starved and raped, while we have the choice to have sex, the choice of partners, and the choice to plan ahead about birth control and disease prevention. I love my birth control, but someone looking for a hookup and having to pony up a couple of quarters for the restroom condom dispenser is not in sexual slavery.

Forced Labor

And there are other forms of slavery as well, some still called for what it is and others often disguised as “paid labor” whose workers’ alleged earnings go back to their “employers” for their “debt” of food and clothing and shelter. Many of these are children, though certainly there’s no age limit on human trafficking.

And I’m partially to blame, with my chocolate habit. I’ve only recently learned the largest supplier of cocoa beans, the Ivory Coast, is estimated to use child slaves for perhaps 90% of their labor.

“The beatings [with a bicycle chain] were a part of my life. Anytime they loaded you with bags and you fell while carrying them, nobody helped you. Instead, they beat you and beat you until you picked it up again.”

Aly, sold at age 11, was rescued after a year and a half along with 18 other slaves at his farm. Their owner spent 24 days in prison.

global map showing trafficking density

And even if these slaves do escape or are discarded when they are no longer useful, they often have nowhere to go, nor education to help them make a new life or find new, paid employment.

Slavery is known is 161 countries today, and yet 40% have never registered a conviction [IJM].

But we don’t just have to stand by.

What You Can Do Right At Home

The Trafficking Victims Protection Re-authorization Act is a US Federal law to combat human trafficking specifically. A note to your legislators is pretty easy to do.

A friend of mine is organizing an event at Purdue University this week to raise awareness of the issue and financial support for legal action around the world.

Stand for Freedom statistics on modern slavery
Stand for Freedom

They will have fair-trade chocolate (see below) and fair-trade coffee and a truckload of information.

One of the best things to do, obviously, is to be aware of where your purchases come from. Fair-trade products are in almost all cases produced with ethical labor practices, so look for certified goods.

Want to donate? (I have!) Consider International Justice Mission. See also End It for more information and things to do.

What About Chocolate?!

At present there is no way to know for certain if one is buying slave-harvested chocolate or not (apparently fair trade regs don’t actually cover slavery in cocoa production?!), but it seems like buying organic chocolate is safer, as most organic chocolate is grown in Latin America where cocoa slavery is far less common. A general chocolate boycott is actually not recommended, as slavery worsened as cocoa prices fell and profit margins slimmed; instead, buying ethically-produced chocolate is more likely to be a better solution. I will keep my eyes open and see what I can learn….


I’m told that despite my previous reading, Fair Trade-certified chocolate most probably does not have slave labor behind it. Stop Chocolate Slavery also reiterates the likelihood of organic chocolate also being slave-free. For best conscience, see Fair Trade USA’s list of fair-trade cocoa companies.

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  1. Thanks for the links. This is one of the reasons I don’t shop at Walmart, but the place I fall down the worst on this issue is my chocolate consumption. I’ve tried fair trade chocolates and organic chocolates, and they’re almost always too dark for me. I love Hershey’s Special Dark and feel guilty every time I eat it because I know they’re not slave-free. I need to do some homework and try to find a place that does chocolate tastings so I can find chocolate I like without spending a small fortune. That was how I learned to like wine, was doing wine tastings. I figure it’ll work for chocolate too, right?

  2. This is truly a huge issue, and most Americans are unaware it exists here. Thank you for spreading the word.
    I encourage people to buy chocolate from Seattle’s very own (slave-free) Theo Chocolate, the ONLY Organic, Fair Trade, Fair for Life certified Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Factory in North America. http://www.TheoChocolate.com

  3. Hi Laura,

    I found your blog when I was looking for your phone number to help with my slightly crazy, but otherwise lovely, Westies. Then I found this post, which speaks to my heart, because right now I’ve just begun reading The White Umbrella by Mary Frances Bowley. The book is a compilation of stories from her ATL organization which helps girls who have been sexually abused or have been sex slaves. My eyes are being opened to this issue and I want to do what I can, so thanks for the links.

    • It’s easy to be ignorant of this, and then it’s easy to feel helpless. As a good clicker trainer, I can’t just point out what’s wrong, I have to point toward a solution! so I needed the links as well. I’m glad you found them useful.