The Atlantic: Slavery Still Exists
It was 130 degrees when I was first introduced to the brick kilns of Nepal. In these severe temperatures, men, women, and children — whole families, in fact — were surrounded by a dense cloud of dust while mechanically stacking bricks on their heads, carrying them, 18 at a time, from the scorching kilns to trucks hundreds of yards away.
These are slaves. Deadened by monotony and exhaustion, they worked without speaking, repeating the same task 16 hours a day. They took no rest for food or water, no bathroom breaks — although their dehydration suppressed their need to urinate.
Around the world human traffickers trick many people into slavery by false promises of good jobs or good education, only to find themselves forced to work without pay, under the threat of violence. Trapped by phony debt, these slaves are hunted by local police and private security guards if they try to escape. Sometimes slaves don’t even understand that they’re enslaved, despite people working 16 or 17 hours a day with no pay. They’re simply used to it as something they’ve been doing their whole lives. Their bodies grow weak and vulnerable to disease, but they have nothing to compare their experience to.
For the last 28 years I have documented people in more than 100 countries on six continents. In 2009, at the Vancouver Peace Summit, I met a supporter of Free the Slaves, an NGO dedicated to eradicating modern-day slavery; weeks later, I flew down to Los Angeles and met with the director of Free the Slaves; thus began my journey into exploring modern-day slavery.
Oddly, I’d been to most of the locations where I started photographing slavery many times before. I even considered some of them homes-away-from-home. But there can be dark corners in familiar places.
These are not images of “problems.” They’re images of people. There are 27 million slaves in the world today: That’s more than double the number of people taken from Africa during the entire transatlantic slave trade. A hundred and fifty years ago, an average agricultural slave cost over three times the average yearly wage of an American worker, about US$50,000 in today’s money. Yet now, entire families can be enslaved for generations over a debt as small as $18. Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it exists all over the world.
Accra, Ghana: These gold miners have just come out of the shaft, their pants soaked from their own sweat. Most had spent all their money coming from the north hoping to strike it rich in legal mines. But legal operations require certifications. When they can’t get a job, the men take high-interest loans or join groups of slaves in mines abandoned by legitimate operations.
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