A World Enslaved
By E. Benjamin Skinner
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There are now more slaves on the planet than at any time in human history. True abolition will elude us until we admit the massive scope of the problem, attack it in all its forms, and empower slaves to help free themselves.
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images
21st-century slaves: 300,000 children are in domestic bondage in Haiti.
Web Extra: Listen to author E. Benjamin Skinner negotiate with a slave trader for a human life at:
Standing in New York City, you are five hours away from being able to negotiate the sale, in broad daylight, of a healthy boy or girl. He or she can be used for anything, though sex and domestic labor are most common. Before you go, let’s be clear on what you are buying. A slave is a human being forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. Agreed? Good.
Most people imagine that slavery died in the 19th century. Since 1817, more than a dozen international conventions have been signed banning the slave trade. Yet, today there are more slaves than at any time in human history.
And if you’re going to buy one in five hours, you’d better get a move on. First, hail a taxi to JFK International Airport, and hop on a direct flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The flight takes three hours. After landing at Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, you will need 50 cents for the most common form of transport in Port-au-Prince, the tap-tap, a flatbed pickup retrofitted with benches and a canopy. Three quarters of the way up Route de Delmas, the capital’s main street, tap the roof and hop out. There, on a side street, you will find a group of men standing in front of Le Réseau (The Network) barbershop. As you approach, a man steps forward: “Are you looking to get a person?”
Meet Benavil Lebhom. He smiles easily. He has a trim mustache and wears a multicolored, striped golf shirt, a gold chain, and Doc Martens knockoffs. Benavil is a courtier, or broker. He holds an official real estate license and calls himself an employment agent. Two thirds of the employees he places are child slaves. The total number of Haitian children in bondage in their own country stands at 300,000. They are the restavèks, the “stay-withs,” as they are euphemistically known in Creole. Forced, unpaid, they work in captivity from before dawn until night. Benavil and thousands of other formal and informal traffickers lure these children from desperately impoverished rural parents, with promises of free schooling and a better life.
The negotiation to buy a child slave might sound a bit like this:
“How quickly do you think it would be possible to bring a child in? Somebody who could clean and cook?” you ask. “I don’t have a very big place; I have a small apartment. But I’m wondering how much that would cost? And how quickly?”
“Three days,” Benavil responds.
“And you could bring the child here?” you inquire. “Or are there children here already?”
“I don’t have any here in Port-au-Prince right now,” says Benavil, his eyes widening at the thought of a foreign client. “I would go out to the countryside.”
You ask about additional expenses. “Would I have to pay for transportation?”
“Bon,” says Benavil. “A hundred U.S.”
Smelling a rip-off, you press him, “And that’s just for transportation?”
“Transportation would be about 100 Haitian,” says Benavil, or around $13, “because you’d have to get out there. Plus [hotel and] food on the trip. Five hundred gourdes.”
“Okay, 500 Haitian,” you say.
Now you ask the big question: “And what would your fee be?” This is the moment of truth, and Benavil’s eyes narrow as he determines how much he can take you for.
“A hundred. American.”
“That seems like a lot,” you say, with a smile so as not to kill the deal. “How much would you charge a Haitian?”
Benavil’s voice rises with feigned indignation. “A hundred dollars. This is a major effort.”
You hold firm. “Could you bring down your fee to 50 U.S.?”
Benavil pauses. But only for effect. He knows he’s still got you for much more than a Haitian would pay. “Oui,” he says with a smile.
But the deal isn’t done. Benavil leans in close. “This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a ‘partner’? You understand what I mean?”
You don’t blink at being asked if you want the child for sex. “I mean, is it possible to have someone that could be both?”
“Oui!” Benavil responds enthusiastically.
If you’re interested in taking your purchase back to the United States, Benavil tells you that he can “arrange” the proper papers to make it look as though you’ve adopted the child.
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