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In Florida, migrant field workers head for the truck with buckets of banana peppers.

In Florida, migrant field workers head for the truck with buckets of banana peppers. Migrant workers in the United States live and work in dangerous condtions, for little money and with scant protection from abuses. To read more on modern-day slavery in America, see http://www.palmbeachpost.com/moderndayslavery

U prof combats slavery

27 million people worldwide are working under "contemporary" slavery

By Patty Mattern

From M, summer 2005

University of Minnesota law professor David Weissbrodt is used to the surprise people show when he talks about what he devotes much of his time to these days--slavery.

"They can hardly believe slavery exists," says Weissbrodt, who is in Geneva, Switzerland, this week working as a new member of the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Contemporary Forms of Slavery. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Weissbrodt, who has been working with the U.N. to abolish slavery since 1996, to his latest assignment last month.

The U.N. conservatively estimates that 27 million people worldwide are working under what's called "contemporary" slavery--practices like sex trafficking, the sale of children, children forced into the military, child labor, and debt bondage.

When Weissbrodt talks about contemporary slavery, he gives examples rather than definitions.

Take Saudi Arabia--large numbers of migrants come from the Phillipines, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan to work in Saudi Arabia as household servants. "Their passports are taken from them and they essentially lose their capacity to control their lives. Many of them, particularly domestic servants, are abused and they have no way of getting out of the situation," Weissbrodt says.

Sometimes people are tricked into taking a tiny loan to pay for medicine for their sick child. They are forced to pay back their loan through labor, working long hours every day of the year for nothing but basic food and shelter. This slavery, commonly referred to as bonded labor, is common in India and Pakistan and is often passed from generation to generation.

"And even though we might say they are just migrant workers, their situation is more analogous to slavery than it is to economic employment," he says.

As a member of a U.N. subcommission on the protection of human rights, Weissbrodt heard sex trafficking stories firsthand. "I remember one young woman came to testify from Nepal. She was 16, but much younger when [she was forced into the sex trade]--about 12," he says.

Weissbrodt recalls listening to her describe how a recruiter encouraged her to come to Bombay, India. Once there, the recruiter promised, she would become a waitress in a restaurant. "When she got there, her identity papers were taken from her and she was forced into prostitution," he says. "She spent three years in a brothel where she was raped on a periodic basis and contracted HIV."

After a while, the brothel owner brought in new, younger women, so he needed to get rid of his previous prostitutes. He called the police on himself, Weissbrodt says. A raid ensued with lots of publicity announcing how officials were shutting down this horrible house of prostitution.

"What was really going on, was that the brothel owner was just clearing out his stock. So this woman was arrested by Indian police and treated like a criminal," Weissbrodt says.

Authorities sent the woman back to Nepal. There she connected with a nongovernmental organization trying to educate young women not to accept the enticements of recruiters. "She was incredibly impressive for her commitment to her new life, going from village to village, telling her story to make sure it didn't happen to other women," he says. "That one young woman, I must say, is the one that gives me a reason to want to do this."

The board Weissbrodt now sits on funded the woman's efforts to tell her story and it provides small grants for projects that offer humanitarian, legal, and financial aid to individuals whose human rights have been violated as a result of contemporary forms of slavery. The money is used on projects such as building schools for children who were once forced into hard labor.

Many people might think contemporary slavery only takes place outside America. Not so, says Weissbrodt. "There is information about abuse of migrant workers in the United States and there are people who are trafficked into the U.S. for the sex trade," he says. "There are some pretty robust legal provisions and enforcement in the U.S., but it still goes on."

A continuum of slavery exists, Weissbrodt says. Contemporary slavery can involve children who are trafficked and forced into sweatshops or made to beg in the streets. All the money they earn goes to their controller.

Another form of slavery involves migrant workers who must use their pay to buy food, clothing, and other necessities from their employer's company store, Weissbrodt explains. These people make such little money that they incur debt at the store, and they must keep working for the employer to pay off that debt.

Sometimes people are tricked into taking a tiny loan to pay for medicine for their sick child. They are forced to pay back their loan through labor, working long hours every day of the year for nothing but basic food and shelter. This slavery, commonly referred to as bonded labor, is common in India and Pakistan and is often passed from generation to generation.

"[Bonded labor or bonded debt] is where you inherit your father's debt and your grandfather's debt. You're always working to pay off that debt," Weissbrodt says. "And you never get out of debt."

Many people might think contemporary slavery only takes place outside America. Not so, says Weissbrodt. "There is information about abuse of migrant workers in the United States and there are people who are trafficked into the U.S. for the sex trade," he says. "There are some pretty robust legal provisions and enforcement in the U.S., but it still goes on."

A disturbing characteristic sets contemporary slavery apart from its predecessor, the traditional form of slavery called "chattel slavery."

"In the context of chattel slavery, you owned a slave, and if you owned a slave in the 19th century, you would consider the slave to be an extremely important asset," Weissbrodt says. "Although you would treat your slave badly by denying him or her the right to marry or own property, you would want to preserve your asset."

"The modern form of slavery is much more problematic in that people who are trafficking, for example, are dispensing property and they don't take as much care with the person," Weissbrodt says. "In some ways, it makes the new forms of slavery more serious than what we used to call slavery."

Weissbrodt and others work hard toward eradicating slavery. "You try to move the ball forward and you try to make an improvement in people's lives," Weissbrodt says. "We've been working to end slavery for 200 years at least. We still have more challenges ahead."