Slave Trade Still Part of U.S. Labor Market

Media reports often focus on dramatic narratives of young girls lured into prostitution. Government data suggests it's more like adults in hotel work and home health care.

By Michelle Chen Jun 22, 2010

"The bosses carried weapons. They scared me. I never knew where I was. We were transported every fifteen days to different cities. I knew if I tried to escape I would not get far because everything was unfamiliar. The bosses said that if we escaped they would get their money from our families."

Congressional testimony of Maria, trafficking survivor from Mexico

The legacy of slavery in America is inextricably bound with the history of the nation. And the State Department has finally acknowledged that, even today, people continue to be bought and sold as property.

The State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons report, a global review of human trafficking and civic and legal responses to it, for the first time ranks the United States among the nations that harbor modern-day slavery.

Although the report, released last week, gives the United States relatively high marks for its law enforcement and civic efforts to combat trafficking, victims are scattered throughout the workforce: the captive migrant tomato picker, the prostitute bonded by a smuggling debt, the domestic servant working around the clock without pay.

The media have often focused on dramatic narratives of young girls lured into prostitution rings. But government data suggests that "more foreign victims are found in labor trafficking than sex trafficking," particularly in "above ground" sectors like hotel work and home health care. Official estimates vary widely, but the number of victims could be more than 12 million children and adults worldwide.

Although citizens have also been trafficked, immigrant workers are uniquely at risk. The top countries of origin for foreign trafficking victims, according to the State Department, are Thailand, Mexico, Philippines, Haiti, India, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

Today’s slave trade capitalizes on vast inequalities across national borders, wrought by migration and economic globalization. Many governments have instituted anti-trafficking policies, but with uneven success. The report states that 23 countries got an “upgrade” in the ranking of their anti-trafficking programs. But 19 countries were “downgraded” due to “sparse victim protections, desultory implementation, or inadequate legal structures.”

Despite the country’s relative wealth and sophisticated legal infrastructure, slavery trickles into the United States the same way it does everywhere else, through deep cracks in labor and immigration laws.

Victims often remain hidden because they fear the cost of attempting escape; they depend on their bosses not only for their livelihoods but also protection from immigration authorities if they are undocumented. Moreover, legal status is hardly a safeguard against exploitation, and temporary worker visas may even facilitate trafficking. Stephanie Richard, director of policy with the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), told In These Times:

We’re actually seeing an increase in the number of cases of people coming in lawfully, on lawful visas, and then ending up in human trafficking… because people are using those visas as one of the forms of coercion for keeping people working for them against their will.

To its credit, the State Department’s report stresses that anti-trafficking measures should not just emphasize cracking down on trafficking crimes, and that a comprehensive "victim-centered" approach should “focus on all victims, offering them the opportunity to access shelter, comprehensive services, and in certain cases, immigration relief.”

But advocates fear that bureaucratic rules put basic humanitarian benefits out of reach for many victims. To qualify for special immigration relief for trafficking survivors known as the T-Visa, survivors essentially must cooperate with a law enforcement investigation—a process that advocates say can be humiliating and traumatic. That may be one reason why the number of T-visas granted annually is far smaller than the estimated scope of the problem. (And despite pressure to bring survivors into the criminal process, the Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit pulled through only 43 human trafficking prosecutions in fiscal 2009.)

Though the government has documented major strides since the enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, this year’s report continues to gloss over the systemic failures that underwrite the bottomless thirst for cheap labor—or even better, free labor.

Sienna Baskin, an attorney with the advocacy initiative Sex Workers Project—which is currently campaigning for legislation to protect the rights of trafficked sex workers in New York—sees a continuum between the trafficking epidemic and immigration and law enforcement policies that criminalize victims:

A highly punitive and restrictive immigration system is a factor that leads people to take risks in migrating, sometimes ending up trafficked, although we must also look at poverty, persecution and gender inequities as factors. The growing problem of labor exploitation could be lessened by comprehensive immigration reform that provides visas and fair wages to all workers.

In California, Richard noted that CAST links its assistance programs for trafficking victims to a wider network of community groups fighting for worker justice:

We believe that there is a spectrum of labor exploitation and abuse that’s just unacceptable in this country. And actually, some of the work that we do is taking steps to address the whole spectrum, with the idea in mind that we don’t want people to end up in a trafficking situation.

The Florida-based Coalition of Imokalee Workers merges anti-trafficking and labor activism in their campaigns for farmworkers’ rights. The group was recently honored by the White House for its Campaign for Fair Food, which has successfully pressured corporations to adjust their labor policies across the supply chain, from the tomato farms all the way up to brand-name restaurants like Taco Bell.

At the event announcing the new report, Laura Germino, coordinator of the Coalition’s Anti-slavery Campaign, reflected on the work left to be done. Just twenty years ago, she said:

There was no admission yet by this great nation that the unbroken threat of slavery that has so tragically woven through our history, taking on different patterns, but always weaving the horrendous deprivation of liberty – that it was a constant.

But here’s the good part. There was nowhere to go but up.

Over three centuries into America’s path toward emancipation, the government’s recent, belated steps to combat modern slavery evoke both wary hope and historical shame. Now, at least, we may finally be reaching the right side of a long arc of tragedy.

Cross-posted from In These Times. Photo: istock/Sharon Dominick