Skip to main content

We still need to end slavery

By Bradley Myles, Special to CNN
updated 8:53 AM EDT, Wed October 23, 2013
A trafficking victim sits at a police station on September 16 after being rescued from an Indian village near New Delhi.
A trafficking victim sits at a police station on September 16 after being rescued from an Indian village near New Delhi.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bradley Myles: "12 Years a Slave" movie reveals horrors of historical slavery in the U.S.
  • Myles: Most of us believe slavery in America disappeared but it has never stopped
  • Slaves include girls trafficked for sex, farm workers, domestic servants, he says
  • Myles: We can recognize the signs of modern-day slavery and report them

Editor's note: Bradley Myles is the CEO of Polaris Project, a leading organization in the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery.

(CNN) -- The extraordinary new film "12 Years a Slave" immerses us in the reality of historical slavery at a deep level of complexity and nuance. The film is an opportunity to honor all who were held in chattel slavery, treated like property, and subjected to levels of violence, torture, and control that no human should ever endure.

The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, is also an opportunity to start a meaningful conversation about how prevalent slavery is today.

Most of us believe that slavery in America disappeared over a century ago. In the narrative we've learned, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment ended this horrific chapter in our nation's history. But this narrative is simply wrong.

People protest labor trafficking and modern-day slavery outside the United Nations on September 23 in New York. \n
People protest labor trafficking and modern-day slavery outside the United Nations on September 23 in New York.

Slavery may no longer be legal or accepted. Slavery may no longer be as brutal, as visible, or as blatant. But it's time for us to fully absorb that slavery has been with us every day since the late 1800s.

Solomon Northup, whose autobiography the film is based on, was a free man living with his family in Saratoga, New York, during the 1840s. He was deceived, coerced, drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. His money and documents were taken. He was given a new name, and his true identity was suppressed. He was physically and psychologically tortured, enduring abuse for years and threatened with death if he tried to escape.

Bradley Myles
Bradley Myles

The parallels to slavery today are striking. The control mechanisms used by Solomon's recruiters and captors are the same tactics and stories we hear about daily from the people who reach out to us for help on the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, which Polaris Project operates.

The International Labor Organization estimates nearly 21 million people around the world are victims of modern slavery.. That's 21 million people living in circumstances similar to those that drove Solomon Northup to despair.

Modern slavery is the man who was promised a job on a farm to earn enough money to pay for his parents' medical care, then forced to work long hours, intimidated with violence, and made to live in deplorable conditions in a cramped room with his co-workers.

British woman trafficked by boyfriend
Ending modern day slavery
Slavery case investigated in the UK

It's the man working in a restaurant who was assaulted by his manager and threatened should he ever try to leave. Modern slavery is the 15-year-old girl who was romanced and recruited by a pimp, then raped, beaten, and sold online into the commercial sex trade. It's the woman from South America held against her will in a house in the suburbs, paid only a fraction of the wages she was promised, and compelled to work as a domestic servant. These are only a glimpse into types of cases Polaris Project learns about every day -- cases right here in the United States.

Human trafficking is a low-risk crime with high profits. The U.N. estimated it to be a $32 billion a year industry in 2005, and many in the anti-trafficking field believe that number is outdated and too low.

As ubiquitous and overwhelming as the global scale of modern slavery feels, we can't shy away from the enormity of the challenge to address it. One way to respond is to offer a lifeline: to provide that one moment that helps someone get out of slavery.

For the millions of men, women, and children being trafficked, that moment of opportunity doesn't need to take 12 years to arrive like it did for Solomon. With global telecommunications technologies, political will, and anti-slavery resources, help can be one phone call or one text away.

All of us can help create that moment of opportunity: Learn about modern slavery and recognize its signs. Share the national hotline number and post fliers in places where vulnerable populations might see it.

Report tips and relevant information about suspected slavery in your community by calling Polaris Project. Urge your elected leaders to pass stronger anti-slavery laws that crack down on traffickers and protect survivors. Support efforts nationally or in your community that are building a movement against modern slavery.

We have a duty to learn from Solomon's story and the horrors of historical slavery, to never let it happen again, and to mobilize for the 21 million victims of human trafficking still trapped in slavery. The opportunity to truly eradicate slavery is before us. Now let's rise to the challenge and seize it.

To reach Polaris Project, call 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733)

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Bradley Myles.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT