August 12, 2008

Today we’re adding a new feature to the blog: guest interviews. Our first interviewee is Ben Skinner, author of A Crime So Monstrous and a guest presenter at Mountainfilm 2008. Going undercover when necessary, Skinner infiltrated trafficking networks and slave quarries, urban child markets and illegal brothels. In the process, he became the first person in history to observe the sales of human beings on four continents.

ben-headshot.jpg Ben Skinner

Emily Long: Ben, how did you become interested in the topic of slavery?

Ben Skinner: Abolitionism is in my blood. My great-great grandfather was an abolitionist who fought with Grant’s army at the Siege of Petersburg. I was raised Quaker, and so in addition to family lore, I learned about the early abolitionists—many of whom were Friends—in First Day School. So that set the stage. But the light really turned on when I was researching a story for Newsweek International on slavery in Mauritania, and I met an escaped slave and a repentant master. And then I read slavery expert Kevin Bales’ widely-regarded estimate that there were 27 million slaves in the world today. That estimate, I calculated, represented the greatest number of slaves in the world at any one time. But the number means nothing unless you understand deeply the life of one slave, one trafficker, one liberator, one survivor. So I set out to five continents and over a dozen countries to find them and to tell their stories.

EL: How do you define a slave?

BS: Slaves are those forced to work through fraud and held under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence. The term has largely become devalued in modern society. FIFA President Sepp Blatter recently referred to Cristiano Ronaldo as a “modern-day slave” because Manchester United resisted the ace’s request to be let out of a contract that paid him $240,000 per week. Ronaldo is not a slave. A young woman that I met in an underground Bucharest brothel is a slave. Her trafficker, who offered her to me in exchange for a used car, had attempted to conceal her Down Syndrome by putting makeup on her quickly, but she was crying so hard that her mascara had run. One arm was covered in slashes where, I can only assume, she had tried to escape daily rape the only way she knew how. That is slavery; that is a true crime against humanity.

EL: Your book is starting to raise awareness about an issue that many people think of as historical. Why is slavery still so prevalent in the world, and why don’t more people know about it?

BS: Slaves are more numerous today than at any point in human history because with 1.1 billion people living on less than a dollar-a-day, traffickers have the largest ever pool of potential victims. Of course, only a small fraction of those in extreme poverty actually fall into bondage. But denying the role of absolute withering poverty in slavery is like denying the role of gravity in rainfall.

More people aren’t aware that slavery exists because we are taught affirmatively that it was abolished in national and international law. More than this, the term has lost its currency because modern-day abolitionists have been too vague in laying out their case clearly. Some well-meaning activists assume that any worker earning less than minimum wage is a slave. Others argue that all prostitutes are slaves. Such overreach weakens the case and dilutes the fight.

EL: Slavery can’t still be an issue in the United States, can it? Where does America rank in this question?

BS: Our government estimates that up to 17,500 slaves are trafficked into the United States annually—as many as traders imported each year into colonial America. Yet while we periodically hear about cases of modern-day slavery in the press, ninety-eight percent of slaves in America are never found by law enforcement. American antislavery laws are forehanded; but funding for antitrafficking efforts has been pathetic. The annual U.S. budget to combat the traffic in human beings is less than one half of one percent of the annual budget to combat the traffic in illegal narcotics. I don’t mean to downplay the relative horrors of drug abuse. But ask yourself which is the more monstrous crime.

EL: You went undercover and actually participated in negotiations for purchasing human lives. Why did you not buy the slaves and free them?

BS: I studied the history of modern-day redemption very closely, and found a record of well-intentioned action that often exacerbated suffering. Shelter operators and frontline antislavery workers all spoke to me in unison on the issue: they implored me not to pay for human life. Not only would I be giving rise to a trade in human misery; as a journalist I would broadcast a contorted message to would-be abolitionists that redemption works to end slavery. It does not.

EL: What were your expectations coming to Mountainfilm, and how did you feel about the reception that greeted you?

BS: I’d never been to a film festival before, but honestly I was anticipating something a bit, shall we say, light on substance. I found just the opposite. The festival was wall-to-wall with enormously talented people who actually give a damn. And not only did they give a damn about modern-day slavery but, per capita, the Mountainfilm crowd made more real, hard commitments than any other group that I’ve encountered.

EL: Can you give us an update about what has happened since Mountainfilm?

BS: Someone had warned me that people make commitments in the thin air of the mountains that they don’t fulfill when they return to sea level. Again, the opposite was true. Certain individuals made extraordinary commitments—of money, time and talent. Chris Jordan, for example, announced at the end of Mountainfilm that he would use his exquisite artwork to capture the magnitude of modern-day slavery—and then sell that work to benefit Free The Slaves, arguably the world’s leading antislavery organization. Others made tremendously generous donations of cash. While I wouldn’t want to out anyone without his or her consent, suffice to say that just one of those gifts will help to free over two hundred children on three continents. Truly astounding.

EL: What can people do to help?

BS: Commit time, talent and money. But first, educate yourself and others about the nature of the crime. You will make a much more meaningful contribution if you first understand the true nature of the beast before setting out to slay it. In A Crime So Monstrous I tell the story of modern-day slavery as a global narrative aimed at a broad audience. I think, I hope, reading the book is an effective way to get hooked into the best course of action. Next, concretely, on my website,, I list two magnificent organizations fighting slavery across the globe. One of those, Free The Slaves, has calculated that, on average, it costs $400 to free and rehabilitate a slave through one of its local partners. Of course, to the survivor who then can spread the message of hope and liberty to his or her community, freedom is priceless.