Karlee Sapoznik, co-founder AAMS, speaks to an audience at York University during this past weekend’s conference on slavery in the 21st century.
Slavery is one of the grossest injustices, a stain on the history of humanity. When slavery became an unaccepted practice in North America in the nineteenth century, many swore that such violations of human rights would never again be permitted. Despite those proclamations, today there are more people enslaved worldwide than there ever were during the transatlantic slave trade—an estimated twenty-seven million.
The Alliance Against Modern Slavery (AAMS) launched this past weekend at York University with key two events: Party for Freedom, and a conference on slavery in the twenty-first century. The conference is thought to be the first of its kind in Toronto to bring together survivors of modern slavery, politicians, law enforcement officials, activists, and academics to discuss how to bring sustainable freedom to the enslaved.
We spoke to Karlee Sapoznik, co-founder of AAMS, about the organization and its goals.
Torontoist: What are common misconceptions of modern slavery?
Karlee Sapoznik: Well, most people in Canada, when they think of slavery, right away think of sex workers or sex trafficking. Globally, that is not the norm. Approximately twenty per cent of modern day slavery constitutes human trafficking, and even within that twenty per cent, some of that is for forced labour. This is certainly one misconception.
Another misconception is that people underestimate the percentage of people who are in debt bondage. We estimate that globally, there are twenty-seven million people today who are enslaved. Of that, ten million alone are in India, in what’s called hereditary collateral debt bondage.
Let’s say, for example, your father doesn’t have money to feed his family, or maybe needs medication for his children—he would take a loan from a village elder. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have anything to pay the village elder back, so he gives himself: his whole being, everything he has, everything he thinks, everything he does. Can you imagine? How will he ever pay the debt back? It’s a catch-22. What happens, unfortunately, is the debt is inherited. It goes from father to his children, and so on.
What forms does modern slavery take?
Slavery takes on many forms; these include debt bondage and human trafficking. It also includes child soldiery and forced servile marriage. Under international law, for example, if a woman is purchased, sold, transacted, or inherited under the pretext of marriage, that constitutes slavery. In countries like Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Uganda, these women not only are raped, but they are then forced to marry their rapist. They live in awful conditions.
Where does slavery exist in the world today?
There are reported cases in every country in the world today except for two: Iceland and Greenland.
Does modern slavery exist in Toronto?
Absolutely, yes. In October, we had a huge, huge case just outside of Toronto in Hamilton, where nineteen Hungarian men were found. They had been trafficked to Canada and forced to work in a suburban area by a family. Nobody knew what was going on. They were in the basement, working sixteen to eighteen hours a day, being fed once a day and living in horrible conditions.
That’s an interesting example, because another perception of modern-day slavery is that it only affects women and children.
Globally, the majority of the victims are still women and children, but absolutely it affects men too. Another misconception is that men are the sole perpetrators. Recently, we had a woman in Manitoba perpetrating this—she was working under the auspices of a shelter for women. So there are a number of stereotypes that are just not true when you look at the evidence.
What steps need to be taken to abolish slavery?
A number of things. The RCMP estimate that approximately five per cent of Canadians are aware of this [modern slavery], so: education, education, education.
We also need to get organized. That’s one thing that the Alliance Against Modern Slavery seeks to do: we seek to unite law enforcement, NGOs, researchers, activists, the police, the RCMP, etc., because organized criminals are organized, and we’re not right now.
One of the things we’re participating in—and are thrilled to be a part of—is an initiative led by Chab Dai Canada. We’re working on a registry database to include all human trafficking cases, all shelters, and all service providers. Then we can document where this is happening and identify trends, gaps, and patterns.
What is the mission of the Alliance Against Modern Slavery?
Our aim is to research, educate, and aim in partnerships in order to end slavery in local and global communities. Our vision is to combat modern slavery by collecting resources, building programs, and creating alliances among a network of local and global partners, so that every person has the opportunity for sustainable freedom.
Once people become educated about this issue and decide they want to help, what can they do?
There are a number of ways to help out—it depends on your skill set. If you’re a teacher, you can educate your students. If you’re a musician or artist, you can relay the message through those mediums. You can also relay it through social networking because, again, I think the biggest challenge we have right now is education—both pre- and post-enslavement.
Pre- means prevention. The average age right now for domestic trafficking in Canada is between ten and fourteen years old; that means we need more education at the high school level.
And then, post-enslavement: there’s no research being done right now, or even services available for victims. Victims don’t just get better once they are free; they require rehabilitation, and there needs to be some kind of funding for this. Advocating to our local politicians and our national representatives is crucial.