Although the United States abolished slavery officially in 1865, it has never ended in practice. In 2009, slaves work in the homes of diplomats in Maryland and in the tomato fields of Southwest Florida. “There has never been a single day in our America, from its discovery and birth right up to the moment you are reading this sentence, without slavery,” write renowned human trafficking expert Kevin Bales and respected historian Ron Soodalter. Their new book, The Slave Next Door, examines modern-day slavery in America, building awareness of slavery’s influence on our everyday habits and inspiring action to prevent and combat slavery as consumers, citizens, and activists.
The book, which is essential reading for anyone interested in human rights, covers every major policy and practice related to slavery and trafficking. One controversial issue is the “per capita” funding stream for NGOs providing service to trafficking victims, which requires them to seek out clients and evaluate whether each will qualify for the funding according to the government contract. As the authors note, not only does this requirement put the organization’s staff at risk in the field, it puts enormous pressure on them to redirect limited service time to outreach activities in order to obtain sufficient client numbers to cover operating costs. Police officers, who should be taking on the task of identifying potential victims, are woefully under-trained and continue to mistake “victim” with “illegal immigrant” or “criminal.” Combined with well-meaning, but often ineffective anti-trafficking legislation, these administrative hurdles to ending human trafficking become nearly impossible to surmount.
The authors also dig into the divisive term “severe form of trafficking,” which appears in anti-trafficking legislation. “Severe” refers to labor or sex induced by force, fraud, or coercion, in contrast to the “non-severe” form, ostensibly commercial sex acts induced without coercion, i.e., consensual sex work. The authors argue that only the “severe” form counts as trafficking. The feverishly moralistic attention given to sex by anti-prostitution abolitionists, politicians, and the media often takes much-needed attention away from forced labor and other forms of trafficking (e.g., forced begging).
This isn’t just an academic commentary on slavery, however; it’s also a manual for action. In the second half of the book, Bales and Soodalter describe specific community organizing and consumer activism tactics, policy prescriptions, and ways that “good Samaritans” can contribute through volunteering and donations to service organizations. They tell the compelling personal stories of victims with empathy and appeal to the reader’s sense of justice and compassion.
I agree with the premise of the book, which is that ordinary U.S. citizens can and should actively work to end slavery. But this work should be done in partnership with survivors who organize themselves and reclaim control over their own lives. Bales and Soodalter offer a great policy analysis, and I highly recommend the book. But they also rely heavily on the language of “liberation,” emphasize the powerlessness of slaves, and place the burden of responsibility on Western consumers. Readers should take to heart the more subtle message here, which is that ending slavery will ultimately require a human rights-based approach rooted in solidarity with workers around the world, not just changes in legislation and trade agreements.