As much as Americans may be surprised to hear it, slavery did not end in this country with the Civil War and the emancipation proclamation. It continues, and it exists even in Utah.
A recent front-page story in the Deseret News documented how several workers from Thailand were allegedly recruited to come to the United States, and eventually to farms in Utah, with the promise of huge paychecks. The workers say they were forced to pay exorbitant "recruitment fees" up front, which required them to borrow large sums of money and put up their meager land holdings, and those of other family members, as collateral. Some of the loans had interest rates as high as 792 percent.
Once here, the workers said they had their passports confiscated and were denied their freedom. The company that recruited them, Global Horizons, eventually stopped paying them, the workers said. Soon, family members back home were in danger of losing their farms. Because the workers here had no passports and did not speak English, they had little chance to escape. Food was scarce and living conditions deplorable.
The Utah workers were lucky enough to catch the attention of Utah Legal Services, a nonprofit organization. They are free now, and their story has been validated by the fact the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has granted them "T visas," which are given to victims of human trafficking, and by the fact the U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation of Global Horizons.
In recent years, we have tried to bring attention to the spread of modern slavery, both in the United States and abroad. Some may feel the story the Thai workers tell doesn't qualify as true slavery because they were paid some money in return for the work they performed; but they had no freedom, the money was not as much as promised, and they say they were subjected to constant threats to their family members at home.
But this case is only one aspect of the problem. An estimated 30 million people worldwide are subject to some form of slavery. Some, including children, are forced into prostitution. Others labor hard for little or no pay and are not free to leave. In the United States, some people have been arrested for keeping foreign housekeepers without paying them. The U.S. State Department has said child trafficking is so well-hidden that authorities in the United States and Europe have no idea how many child maids live in the West.
Slavery is illegal everywhere in the world, and yet it persists. Last year, the United States convicted 47 people of human trafficking, but many countries do not take the crime seriously. And, of course, the victims almost always are voiceless and helpless.
Washington has done more than most countries to bring attention to this problem, but more must be done. The Obama administration needs to make this a priority. As the case of the Thais in Utah demonstrates, the problem can exist anywhere.