July 19, 2005 – Today, Americans typically use the term "slavery" to evoke an abominable history of deep racism and forced labor. Meanwhile, the buying, selling and exploitation of workers that persists right now throughout the world often goes unnamed -- and unnoticed -- even as an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people are brought into the United States each year and forced to work against their will.
Contemporary abolitionists say that modern-day slavery represents the convergence of inequality, poverty and globalization. Those who trade human beings, they say, are capitalizing on market demands created by social and government systems that permit this most extreme brand of exploitation.
Yet activists argue that slavery should not be viewed as an inevitability dictated by economic realities. Instead, they are working to raise awareness about the underlying causes behind todayâ€™s forced labor market and to reform priorities in law enforcement, humanitarian aid and labor policy.
Common Struggles Lead to Extreme Exploitation
According to the US State Department, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are "trafficked," or forced into exploitative captive work situations, across international borders each year. Worldwide, the government estimates that human trafficking is a $9.5 billion-a-year industry, rivaling the illicit trades in arms and drugs.
Activists argue that slavery should not be viewed as an inevitability dictated by economic realities
People who are channeled into forced labor in the US are frequently pulled by the same desperation that leads other impoverished immigrant workers to cross borders in pursuit of economic opportunity, explained Bill Bernstein, deputy director of Mosaic Family Services, a Texas-based social service organization that assists trafficking survivors,
"They may think theyâ€™re coming for a certain position, or maybe it even starts off as smuggling, where they agree to pay the [trafficker] something," Bernstein said. "But once they get here, the dynamic changes, and they become completely subject to the personâ€™s will."
Ann Jordan, director of the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons at the human rights organization Global Rights, said in many cases, fluid international trade networks interact with economic stratification, oppression of women and other vulnerable groups, social instability and civil conflict, to provide traffickers with a constant stream of displaced, transitory workers.
"You had slavery long before capitalism," said Jesse Sage, associate director of the internationally focused American Anti-Slavery Group. "Itâ€™s an institution thatâ€™s quite durable." But, he added, as the global economy has rapidly expanded, "the trade in human beingsâ€¦ is as a result more extensive."
Advocates for immigrant workers say the gears of the modern-day slave trade are greased by misguided and inadequate government policies. An increasingly militarized border and strict immigration laws force many immigrants into underground and unregulated labor markets.
Critics fear that authorities are failing to address slavery as a pervasive human rights abuse, not unique to any economic sector.
In effect, Jordan said, the population of potential trafficking victims includes "everybody who comes to this country without a visa to work."
Instead of hard-line law enforcement policies against undocumented immigrants, human rights and labor groups call for a broad-based, humanitarian approach, placing slavery on a continuum of exploitation in the global labor system.
In their view, to uproot the market forces that breed slavery, the government should improve worker protections, reform the immigration system to allow more immigrants to access the mainstream workforce, and foster the independent efforts of organizations that work directly with affected communities.
Making Labor Laws Work
Anti-slavery advocates say the key to a more rational anti-trafficking policy is a stronger, more comprehensive labor law enforcement system, which could stem not only trafficking but also the other exploitative labor practices that feed into it.
Steve Lize, an organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based farmworker group focused on migrant labor abuses, said, "Weâ€™ve come across slavery cases as the worst form of abuse that farm workers experience." Typically, he said, seasonal farm workers are "working in sweatshop conditions in the fields. And those conditions could easily tip over into slavery."
Jolene Smith, executive director of Free the Slaves, said that due to a shortage of labor inspectors, "the Department of Labor is having a really difficult time monitoring every business that they need to monitor. And itâ€™s no surprise then, that the industries where we find the most victims of trafficking are those industries where thereâ€™s the least monitoring going on."
In various workersâ€™ rights campaigns, the CIW has pressed government regulators to hold corporations accountable for labor violations perpetrated at all levels of production, including farm subcontractors that use slave labor.
After several successful court battles against exploitative employers that supply food industry corporations, the Immokalee Workers won their most significant victory yet in March with an unprecedented labor agreement with Taco Bell and its parent corporation, Yum! Brands. Ending a four-year boycott against Taco Bell, the agreement established a code of conduct for agricultural employers and committed the corporation to paying higher prices for Florida tomatoes to boost the incomes of workers. Moreover, the agreement empowered the CIW to monitor working conditions and hold Taco Bell accountable for violations of the code of conduct throughout the supply chain.
Lize predicted that the regulatory model launched through the Taco Bell agreement could set a precedent for other worker organizing efforts, providing consumers more opportunities to apply direct pressure to industries rife with forced and exploited labor.
Slavery Pushed Onto Ideological Battleground
While prosecutions of trafficking cases have increased since the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, government statistics suggest that action from federal law enforcement has aggregated around sex trafficking cases.
The Department of Justice reported last year that from fiscal years 2001 to 2003, sex trafficking crimes accounted for two-thirds of criminal cases filed under the federal anti-trafficking act, and over 80 percent of the 28 convictions issued. In fiscal year 2004, all 32 convictions related to the Act involved sex crimes.
Yet according to the research of Free the Slaves, less than half of trafficking cases in the US involve forced prostitution. More than a quarter are in domestic work, about 10 percent in the agricultural sector, and nine percent combined in factory and restaurant work.
Smith said that evidence that the majority of slavery cases are not in the commercial sex trade "doesnâ€™t minimize the importance of fighting [forced prostitution], but it just means that we need to widen our perspectives, particularly the perspectives of law enforcement and social service providers."
Some anti-slavery activists assert that the governmentâ€™s apparent focus on the sex industry hedges around the deeper causes and implications of human trafficking. While criticizing law enforcementâ€™s overall response to human trafficking crimes as inadequate, activists also say that what little action has been taken has concentrated primarily on an industry that is already criminalized.
This is contrasted to systemic labor abuses in otherwise legal industries, which tend to be harder for law enforcement to spot, and more politically complex. Critics fear that authorities, and the public as a whole, are failing to address slavery as a pervasive human rights abuse, not unique to any economic sector.
Rather than prioritizing one form of slavery over others, many activists draw connections between sex trafficking and slavery in "legal" but minimally regulated labor markets.
Generally, said Lize, an impoverished, transitory population, combined with the absence of enforceable legal protections, blur the lines between the migrant farm workforce and the sexual exploitation of women. Among undocumented laborers, he said, "women are forced into prostitution through the same kind of patterns [in which] workers are forced into slavery in the agricultural system."
Smith pointed out that even among slaves in sectors other than the sex industry, "[victims] may not be prostituted on the street, but they also suffer sexual abuse," revealing that in slave conditions, subjugation can take various forms.
Since slavery emerges wherever opportunities to sell forced labor arise, argue anti-slavery activists, an effective anti-trafficking policy should be similarly wide-ranging.
But some advocates discern a conservative moral agenda in federal anti-trafficking policy.
In its 2005 report on human trafficking, the State Department specifically referred to the prostitution industry as a cause of enslavement, stating, "prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing, and fuels trafficking in persons."
To many anti-slavery activists, however, this emphasis on prostitution indicates a simplistic and politicized policy that impedes deeper efforts to respond to enslavement throughout the economic structure.
On an international level, Global Rights and other anti-slavery groups say that the moral undertones in the State Departmentâ€™s anti-trafficking policy could be choking off vital funding streams for non-governmental organizations that carry out international anti-trafficking programs funded by the US.
The 2003 reauthorization act of the federal anti-trafficking law specifically precludes funding for any non-US non-governmental organization unless it takes an explicit position "that it does not promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution." According to Global Rights, the Department of Justice recommended last year that the so-called "gag rule" be extended to US-based anti-trafficking organizations.
A coalition of domestic and international social service organizations has criticized the policy as a violation of free expression rights as well as a political intrusion into the relationship between service providers and clients.
Binding the issue of slavery up in the issue of legalizing prostitution, Jordan said, "deflects from an investigation of the real causes, the real underlying issues."
According to Namju Cho, director of policy and communications with the advocacy organization Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, couching trafficking as a category of crime, rather than a multifaceted humanitarian problem, will neither stop the trade in slaves nor alleviate their exploitation.
"Letâ€™s talk about whatâ€™s happening in those originating countries," she said. "And letâ€™s talk about globalization. Letâ€™s talk about economic opportunities. Because at the end of the day, if they didnâ€™t need a job, and they didnâ€™t need money, they wouldnâ€™t be here."