Editor’s Note: An op-ed by Free the Slaves Director of Programs Karen Stauss was published over the weekend by the Huffington Post, in a special section they called “Slavery Sunday.” Here is her commentary and photos from a recent visit to our frontline projects in India.
The brick kilns of Uttar Pradesh, India are more than 7,000 miles from Capitol Hill in Washington. But for years, they have been linked by a groundbreaking piece of American legislation.
That law is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), passed by Congress in 2000. It has established the U.S. as a world leader in the fight to eradicate human trafficking and modern-day slavery, at home and abroad.
The TVPA has helped many people escape brutal abuse. It’s a beacon of hope for millions who are still trapped in bondage.
But the TVPA must be reauthorized every few years. And sadly, Congress allowed it to expire at the end of its last session. It’s the first time that has happened. Without the key piece of authorizing legislation in place to guide America’s global anti-slavery effort, the path to freedom for those in slavery is in jeopardy.
I was thinking about the future of the TVPA as I met slavery survivors in Uttar Pradesh a few weeks ago, just days after the last Congress was gaveled to a close in America. The TVPA had helped these villages move from slavery to freedom.
They had been enslaved because they borrowed money from an unscrupulous brick kiln owner. They were forced to work for him only, for as long as he wished, and they were charged staggering amounts of interest to ensure they could never pay off the debt. Whole families – including children – were forced to work. They were threatened with violence if they questioned the situation.
Debt-bondage like this is illegal. It’s slavery. But it happens throughout the world. And the stakes are quite literally life and death. One man told me that the brick kiln manager killed his eight-year-old son after a petty dispute about access to clean drinking water at the worksite.
The U.S. government provided funding to educate these workers about their rights and organize as a group. They made a decision together that would have been impossible for any of them to make alone: they all decided to escape. The survivors have been provided with a legal advocate and I was told that the brick kiln manager has been charged with murder.
This has been happening in village after village in India. Education leads to freedom. We’re not talking about slapping up a few billboards. It’s real community organizing (President Obama knows what that is). It requires spending time with extraordinarily vulnerable people to establish trust, identify leaders and build their self-confidence. It’s remarkable what happens when people marshal their innate power and join forces with their neighbors.
This type of initiative is innovative in the remote corners of Uttar Pradesh. But it isn’t expensive. And under the TVPA, the U.S. State Department has funded similar projects around the world.
What happens after people break free is a big part of the story. When people begin to stand up for their rights, their villages begin to benefit in many, many ways: better schooling, better health care, better nutrition, a better local economy. Residents in freed villages help slaves in neighboring communities, spreading freedom.
The people of the United States have supported this investment in freedom through the TVPA.
Congress must reauthorize the act to preserve America’s role as a key participant in the growing global movement to abolish slavery in the 21st century. It speaks well of our nation that the thing we value most – freedom – is something we help others achieve. It’s unthinkable that we would stop – that we would tell the next village in slavery that America can’t help.
Slavery is one of the greatest injustices of our time. We all know it. But what can you do?
You can join a new campaign called End It, which has partnered with Free the Slaves and several other groups.
End It is a two-month project that reminds young adults –and everyone else — that getting involved does not mean spending tons of cash. You can fight slavery through social media, local or national government, or by ringing the alarm bell of awareness.
End It will also shine a light on slavery with a tour to select college campuses and special-event days nationwide.
No more bondage. No more sex trafficking. No more child laborers. Starting today, Feb 1st. Check out their launch video below.
As National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month draws to a close, we’re excited to share some important organizational news. We have selected a new Executive Director for Free the Slaves. His name is Maurice Middleberg.
Maurice brings remarkable skills and experience to guide Free the Slaves. He has worked in the field of international development and social justice for 30 years, with experience on projects in 50 countries for CARE, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), The Futures Group, IntraHealth International, and others.
He has a 15-year record in senior and executive positions, including extensive relationships with international development institutions and the United Nations. He’s an accomplished writer and public speaker, and an effective fundraiser.
“Maurice’s background is precisely what Free the Slaves needs as we focus our organization on projects that prove to the world that ending slavery is possible,” says Acting Executive Director Jane Covey. “His experience with groups outside the anti-slavery movement, as well as with international development institutions, will be a great asset as Free the Slaves moves toward our strategic objective of persuading other organizations to include an anti-slavery component in their own international development work.”
Maurice says his decision to join Free the Slaves is both “personal and professional.”
“Fighting injustice has always been important to me, and modern-day slavery is one of the most serious injustices of our time,” Maurice says. “As well, my grandfather survived forced labor in Auschwitz in World War Two — and my wife is actually a descendant of the Lovejoy family, the outspoken American abolitionists from the 1800s. So, I am honored as someone whose family has been touched by slavery in the past to be in a position where I can work to eradicate slavery in the future.”
Maurice currently serves as the Vice President for Global Policy at IntraHealth International, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit that enables health workers to better serve communities in need around the world. He begins as Free the Slaves Executive Director on February 4th. He succeeds Indika Samarawickreme, who left in 2012. Jane Covey, who has been serving as Acting Executive Director, will return to her role as Free the Slaves Board Chair.
Please join us in welcoming Maurice. And, watch this space! He’ll be blogging about his insights into the modern abolition movement.
Today brings a new tool that can help. The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) has released a path breaking report, called “Beyond SB 657: How Businesses Can Meet and Exceed California’s Requirements to Prevent Forced Labor in Supply Chains.”
The title refers to the first-in-the-nation law that requires major manufactures and retailers in California to investigate and disclose what the company is doing to end human trafficking and slavery within their supply chains.
This pioneering law is viewed as a model for national action for all major companies throughout the U.S.
ATEST estimates that approximately 3,200 businesses will be required to comply with SB 657. “If California were a separate country, California’s economy would be in the top 10 largest economies worldwide. Effective efforts to eliminate human trafficking in supply chains of companies doing business in the state could prevent untold numbers of people worldwide from being trapped into what is essentially modern slavery,” says David Abramowitz, Director of ATEST and Vice President, Policy and Government Relations, Humanity United.
“This report aims to make it easier for companies to comply and even go beyond California’s requirements to eliminate forced labor in supply chains and we hope it will serve as a model for action by all companies committed to having modern sourcing practices that avoid human trafficking.”
In the coming months, ATEST will release results of on-going research on hundreds of company disclosures in order to demonstrate how the law is—and is not—leading to changes in corporate practice around trafficking. Free the Slaves is a founding member of the ATEST coalition.
There are reasons young people end up in slavery today. We’re all vulnerable to harm, one way or another, at one point or another.
Traffickers spot these weaknesses, and pounce when they see an opening.
The campus video channel mtvU has just launched an amazing social media campaign that visualizes how young people can end up enslaved inside the United States.
The Backstory draws you in to become a central character in the storyline. First, you see provocative online ads, and then you see the painful stories behind those seemingly innocuous posts. Soon, you find out how those ads could have turned someone you know in to a slave.
The Backstory is illustrated through a powerful series of videos featuring dancers from Alvin Ailey II, music scored by Kenna and text read by rapper Talib Kweli.
It’s inspired by real stories, including the book The Slave Next Door by Free the Slaves Co-Founder Kevin Bales and historian Ron Soodalter. The idea for the project started with four students at James Madison University, who answered mtvU’s call for innovative digital tools to raise awareness.
The Backstory asks a central question: what would you do? You have several choices for action. The Backstory is part of mtvU’s Against our Will campaign. Free the Slaves is a partner.