In Modern Slavery, Sad Echoes of Juneteenth

As African Americans celebrate the June 19 anniversary of the delayed emancipation of enslaved Africans in Texas, human bondage continues in our time -- and on our shores.

Juneteenth celebrants, unaware of the hidden scourge of modern slavery (Getty)
Juneteenth celebrants, unaware of the hidden scourge of modern slavery (Getty)

This weekend throughout the South, African Americans will gather at festivals, picnics and other events to observe Juneteenth, a celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The term “Juneteenth” comes from the date June 19, 1865, when enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas, found out that they were free a full  years after the Emancipation Proclamation became official.

For 30 long months, the enslaved Texans continued to toil, unaware that technically they were free to stop and pursue their destinies. Their official status as free Americans meant nothing until Juneteenth came around.

Unfortunately, for millions of people around the world today — and thousands in the United States — their official status as free people also means nothing. That’s because in various forms, the involuntary servitude of human beings — slavery — still exists.

The case of an Atlanta woman convicted on June 10 of enslaving two people who shared her Nigerian heritage shows how persistent the problem remains, even in the 21st century. Bidemi Bello was found guilty of luring women into bondage after offering them jobs as nannies and the opportunity to be educated in the U.S.

She brought them into the country on fake passports, and once they were here, she subjected them to beatings and inhumane conditions while forcing them to clean and provide child care at homes in upscale enclaves north of Atlanta. Unfortunately, this type of crime isn’t an isolated incident, nor is it limited to any particular community.

A Global Impact

According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 27 million people enslaved around the world — women, children and men who are brutally forced to work without pay under the threat of beatings, rape and murder if they try to escape. Although slavery is not legal anywhere, it’s a booming criminal industry that is happening everywhere.

“For perpetrators of human trafficking, this is a business, so they’ve learned to be smart about it,” Jill Morris, constituency director of the Not For Sale Campaign, told The Root. “Like any other organized crime, they’ve learned how to hide and form covert networks. They also have a lot of money and power, so in certain parts of the world they can buy off authorities.”

Unlike the historic chattel system, modern-day slavery takes on various, subtler forms — another factor that makes it difficult to detect and stop. The most widely practiced kind, especially prevalent in Southeast Asia, is debt bondage in which people must pay off loans with labor instead of currency. But with high interest rates and new debts incurred by food and shelter, many of these workers toil in bondage their entire lives and pass their “debt” on for several generations.

Sex trafficking involves women and children forced into prostitution. The human-trafficking industry generates an estimated $32 billion a year. Millions of other victims are lured, with false promises of good jobs, into forced labor, working for zero pay in hazardous conditions. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to this form of slavery, trafficked into a range of industries including mining, farming, textiles and domestic work.

Many Americans conceptualize modern-day slavery as a problem only in foreign countries. We recall images of young girls forced into brothels in Cambodia and Russia, or men mining for profitable metal in the Congo. But according to the U.S. State Department, between 14,500 and 17,000 people are trafficked in the United States each year.