Right here, right now in the United States, nearly 60,000 people live in slavery, forced to work against their will, mostly in the sex trades, according to the news site Mic. Unfortunately, that number pales in comparison to the millions of people around the globe who are enslaved or living without access to basic rights.

News of human rights violations is often centered in developing nations, but no place is completely free of people being taken advantage of.

Worldwide, about 21 million people are held in modern day slavery, their captors often lured by money. Forced labor and human trafficking are worth $150 billion, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

More than 50% of those held captive are females, although the fields of agriculture, mining, and construction were more likely to enslave men, according to ILO.

Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 seeks to raise awareness about human rights issues and elevate living conditions for all.

What are human rights?

Although laws vary from nation to nation, some rights have been established by the United Nations as undeniable, no matter where a person lives. Basic rights include freedom and equality, the right to live without discrimination, the right to due process of law, and the ability to travel freely, both within the borders of the person’s home country and abroad.

The international standard of human rights was first codified in 1948, with the first Human Rights Day in 1950. In 1993, at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, countries from around the world reaffirmed their commitment to upholding these unalienable principles.

Despite widespread support for basic rights, humans continue to be abused around the world, both in countries with strong laws and others that don’t support the international standards.

In North Korea, for example, the government reportedly runs political prisons where people work in forced labor, are executed, tortured, starved, and raped. The U.N. General Assembly has condemned the actions, reports the Washington Post, which could result in a trial for the nation’s leadership in the International Criminal Court. The actions have been compared to those undertaken by Nazi Germany, the Post reports.

Human rights abuses in the U.S.

Often, we think of human rights abuses as things of the past, but even in modern day America, slavery exists. And it’s not just foreign nationals who are enslaved. About 40% of people trafficked in the U.S. for the sex trades are citizens, according to Mic, as are about 20% of those trafficked in this country for labor. Top labor trafficking industries include domestic labor, traveling sales groups, and restaurants.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI):

“We’re working hard to stop human trafficking—not only because of the personal and psychological toll it takes on society, but also because it facilitates the illegal movement of immigrants across borders and provides a ready source of income for organized crime groups and even terrorists.”

How does this happen? According to the Polaris Project:

“Victims are frequently lured by false promises of a lucrative job, stability, education, or a loving relationship…While they share the trait of vulnerability, victims have diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, varied levels of education, and may be documented or undocumented.”

Targets may be youth who ran away from home or are homeless, domestic violence victims, or those struggling against social discrimination.

Traffickers, the people perpetrating these crimes, may operate alone or as a part of an extensive organized crime unit. People ranging from from small business owners to gangs, pimps, and even victims’ own family members have operated as captors. The Polaris Project says:

“(Traffickers’) common thread is a willingness to exploit other human beings for profit.”

The Guatemalan girls’ story

Imagine living as a poor person in Guatemala and meeting people who told you they could give your daughters a good life in the U.S., with well-paying jobs that would allow them to earn money and send it home, as well as secure the girls a good future.

A number of girls, some as young as 12, were smuggled into the U.S. on that premise, but were instead taken into captivity, forced into prostitution, domestic work, or other labor. The girls were so ill equipped for the world they didn’t even know their birthdays, according to FBI. Finally, the FBI captured the nine responsible captors who were sentenced up to 40 years in jail.

Labor trafficking

Although sex trafficking frequently makes headlines, labor trafficking is a critical issue that affects the people all over the globe. Human Rights Day seeks to draw attention to these practices, too, which frequently result in U.S. citizens and immigrants alike forced into working farm fields, as household help, at carnivals, and in factories.

With immigrants, captors frequently take advantage of their slaves’ fear and limited knowledge of U.S. laws to scare them into submission, according to the Polaris Project. Any industry that’s lightly regulated but has a high demand for cheap labor poses the risk for human rights abuses.

How can I get involved on Human Rights Day?

One of the main goals of Human Rights Day is to raise awareness, so do your part to get informed. Spread the message that modern day slavery and other human rights atrocities happen every day. Tell your friends and family, start conversations, and share messages on social media.

On the most basic level, do your best to frequent restaurants, buy clothes, and otherwise conduct business with ethical companies who treat their employees well. If you hire a maid or someone to do lawn work, make sure the workers seem well-fed and not abused.

If you’d like to take a more active stance, consider volunteering for an advocacy group such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. These organizations send out email alerts to inform subscribers about the latest human rights issues and suggest ways to help. Sometimes, help is as simple as writing a letter to a politician or signing a petition.

If you are concerned that someone is a victim of human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 888-373-7888. Red flags someone may be a victim include:

  • Owing a large debt that’s near impossible to pay off
  • Working as a prostitute under the age of 18
  • Earning very little money
  • Lacking freedom to come and go
  • Expressing unhealthy emotions such as fear, anxiety, submission, or paranoia

How do you plan to participate in Human Rights Day?

Image by Imagens Evangelicas via Flickr

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