Author Struggles to Stay Removed from Slave Trade

Jul 17, 2011

With $50 and a plane ticket to Haiti, one can buy a slave. This was just one of the difficult lessons writer Benjamin Skinner learned while researching his book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery.

Skinner met with slaves and traffickers in 12 different countries, filling in the substance around a startling fact: there are more slaves on the planet today than at any time in human history. Skinner speaks with Anthony Brooks about his experience researching slavery.

Though now illegal throughout the world, slavery is more or less the same as it was hundreds of years ago, Skinner explains. Slaves are still "those that are forced to work under threat of violence for no pay beyond sustenance."

Something disturbing has changed however — the price of a human. After adjusting for inflation, Skinner found that, "In 1850, a slave would cost roughly $30,000 to $40,000 — in other words it was like investing in a Mercedes. Today you can go to Haiti and buy a 9-year-old girl to use as a sexual and domestic slave for $50. The devaluation of human life is incredibly pronounced."

Skinner obtained this specific figure through a very hands-on process. In the fall of 2005, he visited Haiti, which has one of the highest concentrations of slaves anywhere in the world.

"I pulled up in a car and rolled down the window," he recalls. "Someone said, 'Do you want to get a person?'"

Though the country was in a time of political chaos, the street where he met the trafficker was clean and relatively quiet. A tape of the conversation reveals a calm, concise transaction. He was initially told he could get a 9-year-old sex partner/house slave for $100, but he bargained it down to $50.

"The thing that struck me more than anything afterwards was how incredibly banal the transaction was. It was as if I was negotiating on the street for a used stereo."

In the end, he agreed on the price, but told the trader not to make any moves.

"When I was talking to traffickers, I had a principle that I wouldn't pay for human life," he says.

This principle enabled him to keep a certain distance from the system, but not giving in to the temptation to free a suffering human being was an emotionally taxing struggle, he says.

"It's one thing when you are planning an effort like this, this is a work of journalism — I'm not going to interfere with my subjects. It's another thing when you are in an underground brothel in Bucharest, who has this girl with Down Syndrome, who you know is undergoing rape several times a day. When this girl is offered to me in trade for a used car ... I walk away ... it's not an easy thing to do," he says.

At one point, he did violate his principal — helping a mother free her daughter from slavery. He says he does not regret his decision, however, and continues to track her progress through a local NGO in Haiti. She's now in school, he says, and wrote him a letter over Christmas.

Slavery consumes Skinner, he says.

"When I come back to a nice loft in Brooklyn and I have to think about writing this thing — that drove me. I knew that I had to write as compelling a book as possible. This is a life-long commitment for me."

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


ANTHONY BROOKS, host:


And I'm Anthony Brooks.


Here's a fact that shouldn't be. There are now more slaves on the planet than
in any time in human history. Here's another one. Today, human traffickers
bring more slaves into the U.S. than slave traders transported into to
pre-independent America.


How can this be? Slavery is banned around the world and was abolished in the
U.S. a century and a half ago. But writer Benjamin Skinner found out that if
you have a hundred bucks and a plane ticket to Haiti, you can buy a human
being. Benjamin Skinner is the author of a new book "A Crime So Monstrous,
Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery." And he joins us from New York.


Welcome to the program, Benjamin Skinner.


Mr. BENJAMIN SKINNER (Author): Thanks. Good to be with you.


BROOKS: You write that slavery exists today on an unprecedented level around
the world, in Africa, in Europe, Asia, South Asia, here in the U.S. What do we
mean by slavery in this modern age?


Mr. SKINNER: Essentially what we're talking about is what we were talking about
150 years ago - those that are forced to work under threat of violence for no
pay beyond subsistence. The critical difference is that today slavery is
illegal everywhere.


BROOKS: Now, to understand how people are bought and sold into slavery, you
traveled to 12 different countries, you met with slaves, survivors, and the
traffickers that sell them. And I want to talk to you about Haiti. You went
there and you found a slave broker and actually negotiated with him. Tell us
about that.


Mr. SKINNER: In Haiti, when I was there, which was the fall of 2005, there was
no functional government. The U.N. peacekeepers were basically keeping order.
Parts of it were like the Wild West.


However, the part where I went to, to find this individual, was a very clean
street in broad daylight. And I pulled up in a car, rolled down the window,
somebody came over and said do you want to get a person?


BROOKS: Now, you actually taped that conversation, and we have that tape we can
actually play for listeners right now. So let's just listen to a little bit of
that negotiation.


SOUNDBITE OF TAPE


Mr. SKINNER: Would it be possible - how quickly do you think it would be
possible to bring a child in? Somebody who could clean, somebody who I'd give a
place to stay. I'd take care of food and a place to stay. But I'm wondering how
much that would cost.


Unidentified Woman: For him to go out and find someone to do that?


Mr. SKINNER: Yeah, yeah.


Unidentified Woman: Okay. (Foreign language spoken)


Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)


Unidentified Woman: That would be a hundred U.S.


Mr. SKINNER: A hundred U.S.?


SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER


Unidentified Woman: Which is 800 Haitian.


Mr. SKINNER: Eight hundred Haitian. That seems like a lot. That thing is like a
lot. I mean, could you bring it down? Your fee? Could you bring your fee down
to 50 U.S.?


BROOKS: So Benjamin, where did that negotiation end up?


Mr. SKINNER: First of all, I have to just comment on the tone that you heard in
there.


BROOKS: Sure.


Mr. SKINNER: It was - the thing that struck me more than anything afterwards
was how incredibly banal the whole transaction was. It was as if I was
negotiating on the street for a used stereo. We agreed to a price of $50, but I
told him not to make any moves. I had a principle throughout this book,
whenever I was talking to traffickers, that I would not pay for human life. And
I didn't.


BROOKS: I read in the book, too, about this meeting with this trafficker in
Haiti, and you have the option of sort of negotiating what kind of slave. In
other words, someone is just going to take care of your house or perhaps you're
interested in someone who is going to also provide sexual favors. So there's
all different kinds of slaves as well that he would make available.


Mr. SKINNER: I said, would it be possible to have somebody who would be a
partner - which is the term that he used. And my translator made it clear that
this meant sexual partner - as well as a - as a house slave, somebody who would
cook and clean? And he didn't think twice about it and said of course. And at
that point, I said I wanted a girl, and we started talking about a
nine-year-old girl.


BROOKS: My God. How is modern slavery different than the slavery we read about
in history books? Is it different at all?


Mr. SKINNER: It is absolutely different in the sense that in 1850 a slave would
cost roughly $30-40,000. That's, you know - in other words, it would have been
like investing in a Mercedes. Today you can go to Haiti and you can buy a
nine-year-old girl to use as a sexual and a domestic slave for $50. So the
devaluation of human life is incredibly pronounced.


BROOKS: Now, you write also about this idea of a kind of debt slavery, and this
shows up a lot in South Asia. Can you describe that? How does that work?


Mr. SKINNER: Sure. That bondage is by far the largest chunk of modern-day
slavery worldwide. I spent time, for example, and I go into the details of his
life, with a man who I call Ganu(ph); he asked me to change his first name. His
slavery began three generations ago when his grandfather took a loan of 73
cents. Three generations later he's still enslaved, forced to work under threat
of violence and real violence; his slave master was a serial killer known by
local police - and never paid.


BROOKS: So three generations of bondage is - can be traced back to a debt of 78
cents?


Mr. SKINNER: Seventy-three cents in that case, yeah.


BROOKS: You write that there were more than a dozen international conventions
and treaties that have been signed that outlaw slavery. Why does it persist?


Mr. SKINNER: It persists largely because of government inaction and corruption,
because there is a general belief among governments and among the public that
slavery no longer exists.


BROOKS: Well, I want to ask you about the developed world, specifically the
United States. At the beginning of the segment, I read a fact that I pulled
from your book: today, human traffickers bring more slaves into the U.S. than
slave traders transported into pre-independence America. That's astounding.


Mr. SKINNER: The minimum numbers we're talking about here - these are Justice
Department and State department estimates - are between 14,500 and 17,500 every
year. What that is, essentially, is every half-hour another person becomes a
slave in the United States.


BROOKS: And how does it break down in terms of what they're doing? What kind of
slaves are they?


Mr. SKINNER: The slaves in the United States, they're not representative of the
slaves in the world at large in that a slim majority are trafficked into
commercial sex in the United States - slim majority - around 50 percent. A good
deal are enslaved in agricultural or low-level industries. There have been
cases of slaves in Florida, orange fields in Texas, in South Texas. Beyond
that, there are untold number of slaves, and this is the grayest of gray areas
that are trafficked into domestic slavery.


BROOKS: You also write about this confusion in your view, and that is in
developed countries slavery - when people talk about slavery, they're really
just thinking about sex slavery. But that is only a small fraction of the
problem, correct?


Mr. SKINNER: True. If you take 16 slaves, 15 of them will not be enslaved in
commercial sex.


BROOKS: I want to ask you a little bit about the personal sort of journey that
you went on in researching this book. Before you set out to meet slaves and
traffickers, you resolved to maintain a kind of journalistic distance. You
write that you would observe but not engage. That must have been very difficult
at times for you.


Mr. SKINNER: It's one thing when you're planning an effort like this, a project
like this, to say this is a work of journalism, I'm not going to interfere with
my subjects. It's another thing when you actually see in an underground brothel
in Bucharest a young woman who has the visible effect of Down syndrome, who you
know is being raped several times a day, and when this girl is offered to me in
trade for a used car, and when I walked away from that, that's not an easy
thing to do, and to be honest, it stays with me.


BROOKS: Well, Benjamin Skinner, it's quite a book. Thanks for coming in to talk
about it.


Mr. SKINNER: Thank you so much, Anthony.


BROOKS: That's Benjamin Skinner. He's the author of the new book "A Crime So
Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery." It's in stores today. And you
can read an excerpt of Ben Skinner's book at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.