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More Than 35 Million People Around the World Are Slaves

People are slaves in every one of the 167 countries investigated in a new report, including the United States

(Arman Zhenikeyev/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Ima Matul came to the United States in 1997, when she was 17 years old, she told CNN. She thought she would be working as a housekeeper for the cousin of her former employer in Indonesia, but when she arrived her passport was taken:

As soon as she passed through customs, the woman who she'd be "working" for confiscated her passport. At the tony house of her employer just outside Beverly Hills, the $150 a month she'd been promised never materialized....She did not get her one day off a week... [her captor] "was threatening me, saying that if I ran away, the police would arrest me because I didn't have my passport, and that I'd be thrown in jail where I'd be raped," said Matul.

Matul’s story isn’t unique. An estimated 35.8 million people around the world are modern day slaves, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index, a report by the Australia-based NGO the Walk Free Foundation (WFF). 

The ranking is based on the percent of the population estimated to be enslaved and the actions the government is taking to end modern slavery. Mauritania and Uzbekistan top the list with 4 and 3.9 percent of their population in slavery. But in absolute numbers, India leads, with an estimated 14 million people enslaved.

Slaves can be found in every one of the 167 countries the index ranked, including the United States. About 60 thousand people are trapped in slavery in "the land of the free."

Modern-day slavery includes people who are forced to work, owned or controlled by an "employer," bought and sold as "property," and those physically constrained or unable to move freely, according to Antislavery.org. Forced prostitution is a big part of modern-day slavery, but human trafficking also includes domestic workers, restaurant workers and traveling sales crews, reports Steve Hargreaves for CNN.com. Foreign workers are especially vulnerable because they fear deportation. One example: the 500 Indian men working as welders and pipe-fitters in Texas and Mississippi for the marine construction company Signal International, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The first step in eradicating slavery is to measure it," the WFF’s founder, Andrew Forrest, told Larry Elliott for the Guardian.  "And with that critical information, we must all come together – governments, businesses and civil society – to finally bring an end to the most severe form of exploitation.” The index’s report gives the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, Australia and Switzerland the best ranking in terms of government response. Only the U.S., Australia and Brazil have taken steps to keep forced and slave labor out of their supply chains and those of businesses. 

The report says victim assistance is a weakness for most countries. "Most countries either only provide short term assistance, neglecting long-term reintegration, or provide support solely for female or child victims," they write.

CNN’s Freedom Project highlights how individuals can help eradicate modern day slavery. The site has a list of global hotlines to report cases of human trafficking, a list of charities by country and organizations that work globally

Ima Matul was eventually able escape. She passed a note to the neighbors’ nanny, who was able to arrange for her transportation for a shelter run by the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. The people that kept her were never prosecuted because the case was difficult to prove, CNN reports. But Matul has since gotten her GED and is married with three kids. She now works at the coalition as a Survivor Organizer.

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