Horrendous stories of sex slavery and forced labour, mainly among women and children, regularly appear in the media, pointing to a trend that is getting worse in spite of decades of human rights treaties, laws and surveillance.

A feature in the Detroit Free Press informs us:

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking has become the second-fastest-growing criminal industry — just behind drug trafficking — with children accounting for roughly half of all victims. Of the 2,515 cases under investigation in the U.S. in 2010, more than 1,000 involved children.

The United Nations estimates it’s a $32-billion industry, with half of the money coming from industrialized countries.

Yes, slavery is “alive and well” in the US, an official says. Four Michigan cases involve:

* a university janitor who tried to pass off four African immigrants as his own children, subjecting them to forced domestic work and physical abuse

* A Detroit resident called “Gruesome” who forced two teenage girls into prostitution and kept the money they got from it, and a group running a prostitution ring

* a Ukrainian nightclub owner involved in smuggling Eastern European women to work in city strip clubs and forfeit all their earnings.

The trouble is that human trafficking victims are afraid to speak out and stay in hiding.

Another Detroit case involves a woman who did decide to run — and was lucky. Nade left her husband and parents in Africa to work as a domestic servant in the Middle East, but ended up in the US when her employers moved there.

But they ended up in metro Detroit, which Nade eventually learned was for good. She said they stopped paying her before they left the Middle East, and her workload doubled in Michigan when she became the housekeeper for a second family, relatives of her current bosses.

Her captors warned her to never leave the house, she said, telling her Americans were mean and would hurt her.

Within weeks of arriving in the U.S., Nade became very ill. She couldn’t sleep. She could barely walk. Her captors refused to get her medical help.

“It was too much,” she said. “They don’t want to take me to hospital. My body was shaking, and I didn’t have any power.”

She was lucky to escape — and so were her captors, who have fled the country.

It strikes me that this dreadful trend has grown, like the drug trade, because of demand — in this case, particularly, the insatiable demand for sex. Eight in 10 human trafficking cases involve the sex industry; the others involve labour trafficking.

As long as sexual appetites are stoked by movies, advertising and the internet there will be money to be made in luring and forcing women into this horrible slavery. Another factor that makes this easier is the tolerance of many countries for prostitution as a legitimate form of work. Absolute humbug.

As for domestic slavery, there is obviously a culture in some countries that should be challenged by human rights organisations, especially the UN, and by the countries that have diplomatic and trade dealings with them. It is scandalous if political and commercial considerations are pushing basic human rights violations into the background.

Illegal immigration contributes to the labour trafficking problem in the states and elsewhere. The freeing up of immigration laws would address this, even though it is politically unpopular. Demand for cheap labour must help to drive this problem too.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet