Signs of Slavery

“I urge all Americans to educate themselves about all forms of modern slavery and the signs and consequences of human trafficking. Together, and in cooperation with our partners around the world, we can work to end this terrible injustice and protect the rights to life and liberty entrusted to us by our forebears and owed to our children.”

-U.S. President Barack Obama, December 30, 2011[1]


photo by fritzmb

When we open our eyes to the reality of modern slavery and the real possibility that it exists in our communities, we begin to experience our surroundings and the people around us in a different light. As we wonder about the life conditions of people we previously ignored, we may begin to think a timid kitchen worker who speaks no English or a young woman on the corner at night might be enslaved.

From The Slave Next Door by Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter, here are several questions to consider in potential situations of slavery:

  • Does this person enjoy freedom of movement?
  • Does this person appear to be held against his will?
  • Is this person followed or under the supervision of someone else?
  • Does this person seem nervous or afraid to speak freely?
  • Is this person free to change employers?
  • If this person appears to be of school age, are they working when they should be in school?
  • Does this person control his earnings?
  • Was this person cheated into payment of debt upon arrival in the U.S.?
  • Has this person had his passport or other documents taken away?
  • Does this person seem injured? Are signs of physical injury apparent?
  • Does this person seem confused, undernourished or afraid?
  • Does he seem disoriented, confused, malnourished or frightened?[2]

A youth trafficking victim may display these signs or behavior:

  • She has unexplained school absences and may be regarded as a truant.
  • She may be unable to regularly attend school.
  • She may chronically run away from home.
  • She may make references to frequent travel to other cities.
  • She may exhibit bruises or other physical trauma, withdrawn behavior, depression or fear.
  • She may lack control over her schedule or identification documents.
  • She may appear to be hungry or malnourished and inappropriately dressed for the weather or her surroundings.
  • She may show signs of addiction.[3]

Before acting on what you see or imagine you see, remember two things: Do not be a hero. The person you suspect of being enslaved may not be so. If you see someone whom you suspect is enslaved, your best first step is to call one of these numbers:

  • Call 911 to contact your local law enforcement agency.
  • 888-373-7888: The National Human Trafficking Resource Center information hotline. This is a national, toll-free hotline with trained professionals available to answer calls — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year — related to potential trafficking victims, suspicious behaviors, and/or locations where trafficking is suspected to occur.


[1] 2012 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Missing Persons Report, page 33.

[2] Bales, Kevin and Ron Soodalter. The Slave Next Door. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009. p. 41.

[3] Ibid, p. 163-164.