Stop Traffick is one of the newest human-rights organizations on the Middlebury campus and it’s also one of the most-focused, as it demonstrated with its fall symposium titled “Humans: Not For Sale” on November 4-8.
Dedicated to harnessing students’ passions for social change by raising awareness and generating funds to end human slavery, Stop Traffick’s symposium included lectures, discussions, a spoken-word performance by a survivor of sex trafficking, and a film screening of “Born into Brothels.” There was also a dinner of Indian food (where slavery is endemic), and an engaging anti-trafficking performance in the lobby of the Davis Library.
The keynote speaker, E. Benjamin Skinner, a freelance journalist and author of the book “A Crime So Monstrous: Face-To-Face With Modern-Day Slavery,” alerted a packed house of students in Dana Auditorium that euphemisms have the effect of minimizing the seriousness of the problem.
“In its prose the United Nations has this extraordinary capacity to sanitize crimes against humanity through language,” Skinner explained.
“So ‘genocide’ has become ‘ethnic cleansing.’ The ‘modern-day slave trade’ has become ‘human trafficking,’ and ‘slavery’ itself has become ‘generational, collaterialized debt bondage.’”
He defined slavery as the practice of forcing others to work for no pay while they are held fraudulently and under threat of gross violence. He estimated that there are approximately 29.8 million slaves in the world today, and said there are more slaves in South Asia than in the rest of the world combined. According to Skinner, those countries are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.
The guest speaker, who has observed the sale of human beings on four continents, spoke for about 45 minutes about his personal experiences with slavery and then, during the question-and-answer session that followed, offered some advice to Middlebury students.
Skinner, 37, told of his friendship with “Ganu” — a man in India who, along with other members of his family, is held against his will to work. “Ganu’s slavery began well before he was born,” said Skinner. “It began three generations earlier when his grandfather took a debt the equivalent of sixty-two cents in rupees for the meager bride price of Ganu’s mother. Three generations and three slave masters later, Ganu and his entire family are being forced to work” for the same family.
Ganu and his kin blast rocks “using short-fuse explosives,” and then pound those rocks into gravel “using pikes and mortars” to go into the construction of India’s roads. They also pulverize the gravel into silica sand for use in the glass industry. “There is only one way in the modern world to turn a profit through the production of handmade sand,” Skinner said, “and that is through slavery.”
When Skinner would meet surreptitiously with Ganu at night and ask, “Why don’t you leave? Why don’t you run away?” the response was always, “Where would I go? How would I eat?” The master has ways to find runaway slaves and punish them, Ganu would tell Skinner, despite the fact that slavery is against the law.
“For men like Ganu, slavery was no mere mental construct. Slavery was his world and the master is god in that world.” The master is the taker of life but also the giver of sustenance, however meager, Skinner said, and any sustainable solution to end debt bondage such as that of Ganu and his family, has to end those relationships of dependency.
The journalist also discussed a case he reported on for Bloomberg Businessweek in which he interviewed a Javanese fisherman named “Yusril,” who had been recruited to work in international waters off the coast of New Zealand onboard a foreign charter vessel. Yusril was being held against his will to live and work in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.
Using bills of lading, intelligence sources, and shipping documents, Skinner was able to connect the fish caught by Yusril and other offshore slaves to major New Zealand fisheries that were selling the catch to U.S. companies.
“Eventually we were able to name 18 companies involved in the buying, selling, and processing of these fish. Something pretty remarkable happens when you name Wal-Mart, when you name Safeway, when you name Whole Foods, when you name P.F. Chang’s — all of a sudden action happens pretty quickly,” Skinner revealed. As a result of the investigation and subsequent news coverage, contracts were cancelled and companies’ earnings were affected. And Yusril went free.
Later, when a student asked Skinner what citizens should do to combat slavery, the keynote speaker said, “Get involved in Stop Traffick. Help build the movement. A broad national awareness has to start with your generation because [modern-day slavery] is a relatively new issue. It may not catch your Congressman’s attention. It’s not who in D.C. says slavery is important; it’s how high up it is in their in-box… to get U.S. companies to realize, ‘Hey, this matters.’”
Skinner’s theory is that trafficking is both a moral crime and a crime of poverty, and that any effort to eradicate it must end dependency relationships (such as Ganu’s with his master) and the world hunger that tends to fuel them. The website freetheslaves.net, which receives 25 percent of the proceeds from the sale of Skinner’s book, offers ways to help liberate slaves around the world and change the systems that allow slavery to exist.
He also urged the students to consult websites like slaveryfootprint.org and knowthechain.org before buying products, although he cautioned that “categorical boycotts” can have the negative effect of “depressing the opportunities” of people who live in bondage.