Skinner has clocked more than a million flight miles to record the stories of slaves, survivors, traffickers, and their customers across four continents. He writes of the time a broker in Haiti offered to sell him a 9-year-old girl for $100. Skinner haggled him down to $50.
In Bucharest, Romania, a pimp told him he could own a girl in exchange for his secondhand car. The reporter and activist has visited with bonded laborers in gravel pits in India, and heard the stories of underage prostitutes in Bucharest. In Florida, he met a Haitian girl who had been used as a maid and sex slave since she was 9. And he has reported on foreign diplomats who use slave labor in their embassies in Washington.
In an interview, Skinner said slavery isn't an exotic, obscure phenomenon.
"It's even in the headlines today," he said, referring to reports that the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria might be sold into slavery.
A senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism of Brandeis University, Skinner will talk about his experiences at a lecture and book signing at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Drexel University.
"This has become a lifelong commitment," Skinner, 38, said from his office in New York. He began his career at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he became a protégé of Richard C. Holbrooke. Since 2002, he has written about slavery for various publications, including Bloomberg Businessweek and Time.
He said he had always found it difficult to reconcile his work as an objective journalist and his mission as an activist.
"I was going out and working . . . with people who are extraordinarily vulnerable and are cut off from social networks and they certainly can use a helping hand," he said. "But the requirement for us journalists is to observe and not intercede."
Skinner has on rare occasions given in to the temptation to help. He interviewed two teenage sex slaves in South Africa. One, a 17-year-old who was sold for $120 and a bag of crack cocaine, was on her deathbed. Three months pregnant, suffering from tuberculosis, she had finally given way to AIDS. Skinner reacted to her death by rescuing the second girl.
Two years ago, Skinner found another way to help. While he continues to use reportage to expose cases of slavery, he now also employs the power of money through his new firm, Tau Investment Management, to ensure that companies abroad employ wage workers, not slaves, and that they create healthy work environments.
It all began in late 2011, when Skinner was investigating the abuse of workers on fishing trawlers off the coast of New Zealand. Published in February 2012, his report had an immediate, tangible effect on the industry.
"All I was doing is what I always do, report. But it had an effect on the share prices" of the companies he exposed.
"In this one case, the corporations [involved] and their investors actually responded."
One of the corporations in question changed its policy and refused to work with companies that used slave labor.
For its part, the New Zealand government required trawlers fishing in its waters to fly the New Zealand flag and meet the nation's labor laws.
"That was a singular moment for me. Usually, the most I can do is to report [my findings] to law enforcement and governments and . . . for the most part they didn't respond."
Skinner joined forces with Oliver Niedermaier, who ran a shareholder management firm, and developed a model of corporate responsibility. Last year, they founded Tau Investment Management.
The problem, the two men decided, was that some international corporations that professed to be responsible had a laissez faire attitude when it came to their supply chain. A trendy clothing brand in America might seem squeaky clean but could be employing subcontractors who use slave labor.
"The first area we have been working on is the garment industry, which has been beset with child labor, forced labor, forced overtime, and debt bondage and with . . . terrible working conditions," Skinner said. "Those problems were all laid bare before the world with the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory," he said, referring to the commercial building in Bangladesh containing clothing factories that collapsed in April 2013, killing 1,129 people.
Tau invests in companies on the supply chain. The companies it backs are supposed to adhere to ethical models of employment and go green. They also must be transparent, open to scrutiny by investors and prospective employees alike.
Skinner said he envisioned a time when workers would be empowered to report on companies through social media.
"Soon, there will be seven billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world," he said. "Crowd-sourced information on corrupt labor and government practices - that's all coming, soon. It's coming."
He said not only do people need to be freed from forced labor, but they also should be given the opportunity to find dignified employment. He hopes Tau and its investors can help make that happen.
"I think this is a very excitable model that can drive the platform of real abolition," he said. "Real abolition has to involve more than just rescue, more than just awareness-raising; it has to involve alternatives for the human beings who otherwise are victimized."
E. Benjamin Skinner:
"A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face With Modern-Day Slavery"
6 p.m. Wednesday at Drexel University's Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, 33d and Chestnut Streets. Admission: Free. Information: 215-895-6910.