Photo by user Kevin Dooley
Americas / Human Trafficking

Modern Day Slavery in a Post-Slavery World

“Freedom, to me, means the ability to live my life without fear”

The concepts of freedom and liberty are deeply enshrined in the fabric of this country, so much so that they have dominated and continue to dominate our political thought and inform  both our constitution and the international policies we implement today. America’s advocacy for liberty and freedom, both domestically and around the world, has been controversial, but the ideology behind this advocacy bares a semblance to the ideology behind the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. All human beings possess certain inalienable freedoms and liberties, but many, in this country as well as in the world at large, have had and continue to have those freedoms stripped away from them.

Last year around this time, I was asked to reflect on what freedom meant to me and submit a video with my thoughts for My Freedom Day, a student-driven initiative designed to shed light on the prevalence of modern day slavery. It was a more complicated task than I originally expected, sending me down a path of introspection and leading me to the sad realization that by my own definition of freedom, I, as a black man in America, am not completely free. “Freedom, to me, means the ability to live my life without fear.”

During this reflection, I also found myself acknowledging and appreciating the many freedoms that I do have; freedoms that have come at the expense of the lives of activists and military personnel alike.

The video and this reflective process were brought on by an initiative that the Atlanta International School Against Human Trafficking student group was participating in. In accordance with My Freedom Day, a student-driven initiative designed to shed light on the prevalence of modern slavery, this group of students—to which I was a member in high school—was furthering its goal of eradicating human trafficking both in our local community and throughout the world.

The fact that slavery is outlawed by the United Nations and by every national government seems to point to the fact that slavery can’t exist in this world, but this is not a fact at all. The facts as outlined by Polaris Project are that there are an estimated 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally—68% of whom are trapped in forced labor, 26% of whom are children, and 55% of whom are women and girls. The exchange of human bodies for sexual and/or labor exploitation is a 150 billion dollar industry, and not only are many of us blind to it, we are also inadvertently complicit in it.

Human rights organizations like Amnesty International have accused several of America’s most popular brands and companies of using forced or child labor in their production processes. While some of these companies have taken measures to ensure that child and forced labor are not used in their production processes, others have failed to acknowledge the problem as their own.

While it is difficult to trace the origins of every product we consume, there are certain companies that have vetted every level of their production process to ensure that their products are fair trade. Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s are among the most notable, but you can find lists of fair trade brands in almost every industry. Making the transition to entirely fair trade consumption is a demanding and nearly impossible task for most Americans. Almost as deeply ingrained in our country as notions of freedom, is a culture of consumerism. But changing our individual levels of consumption can also make an impact. shows us the ways in which our current consumption are contributing to human trafficking. The site surveys your consumption patterns and, based on this data, provides a rough estimate of how many slaves you have “working for you.” While the metrics are relatively crude, the tool is a conscious reminder that there is a strong connection between one’s level of consumption—and how careful that consumption is done—and the market for slave labor.

To make a real dent in this issue, however, everyone needs to know the signs of human trafficking and have the courage to report it when they see it. Across the country, employees in the transportation industries are being trained to recognize and report suspicious circumstances that point to human trafficking. Airline Ambassadors International is training flight attendants all over the country to be able to spot and quietly report suspected cases of human trafficking. The U.S. Department of Transportation has also made strides in the transportation industry, requiring all 55,000 of its employees to undergo human trafficking awareness training.

The efficacy of this training has freed many victims from their traffickers and will undoubtedly continue to save many more. However, for every employee in the transportation industry, there are thousands of passengers. Providing them with the same or even a more simplified education on the signs of human trafficking would increase the number of people combatting this issue ten-fold, and would ultimately lead to the liberation of thousands, if not millions of victims around the world.

Some of the signs that these organizations are teaching their employees and other advocates to spot human trafficking victims include:

  1. They are not in control of their own travel documents
  2. They are unaware of their departure location, their final destination, or their flight information
  3. They have a tattoo with a barcode, money sign, or any other marking that might indicate that they are the property of someone else.
  4. They appear nervous, uneasy, or fearful of the person accompanying them
  5. They seem to not be able to move freely throughout public spaces
  6. When asked a question, the person accompanying them answers for them

While there is no exact formula for identifying victims or perpetrators of human trafficking, knowing the signs and the environments in which this crime thrives can better inform that “gut feeling” that tells us we might be witnessing a case of human trafficking.

As Bowdoin students and faculty travel domestically and abroad over the course of this spring break, we should be cognizant of the fact that there is a chance that victims are on the airplanes we fly on, the buses we ride, or the streets we walk. They might be in the hotels we stay in, the malls we shop in, or the recreational events we attend. However, most shockingly and sometimes the most difficult to swallow, is the likelihood that someone we know could be a victim. Being aware of your surroundings and having the courage to speak up can liberate and, in many cases, save the lives of those whose freedom has been stripped away from them. The national human trafficking prevention hotline is +1 (833)-373-7888. If you see something, report it.