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Author Struggles to Stay Removed from Slave Trade

Mar 11, 2008 (Day to Day)

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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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