Today’s slave trade

By Michelle Chen May 28, 2009

A new human trafficking indictment could be a preview into the prospects and limitations of immigration law enforcement under the new administration. A group of Missouri-based employers face allegations of importing immigrants for low-wage service jobs that amounted to a modern-day slavery operation. The Kansas City Star reports (h/t Washington Independent) that the companies recruited cleaning and housekeeping workers online and "charged them up to $5,000 for transportation and to process their visa applications.” After arriving in the United States, hundreds of workers–mostly from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines–were essentially held captive, crammed into substandard housing, and charged huge fees. The indictment states, “The enterprise often threatened to cancel the immigration status of foreign nationals who requested permission to seek alternative housing.” The feds targeted the agencies that supplied the labor, rather than the big-name hotel clients, which supposedly “had been assured that the workers were being paid prevailing hourly wages and were properly documented.” The indictment fits the pattern of other major trafficking cases that have led to federal busts. Some of the highest-profile cases have involved prostitution. But it remains to be seen whether these crackdowns will dent the social problems feeding the underground slave trade: dysfunctional immigration policy, the widespread discrimination and terror that mires the undocumented at the bottom of the economy, and anemic labor regulation in the industries that draw poor immigrant workers. As with ICE workplace raids, the systemic ills don’t easily fit in a criminal indictment. While human trafficking is fundamentally an international issue, a 2004 report by U.C. Berkeley researchers described the scope of the problem within U.S. borders: “Over the past five years, forced labor operations have been reported in at least ninety U.S. cities… Forced labor is prevalent in five sectors of the U.S. economy: prostitution and sex services (46%), domestic service (27%), agriculture (10%), sweatshop/factory (5%), and restaurant and hotel work (4%).” Federal and state laws do offer relief and restitution for some survivors of trafficking. But advocates say more resources must be directed to helping survivors recover and reintegrate into their communities. Just as activists criticize employer sanctions for ignoring structural factors driving exploitation, anti-slavery advocates say real liberation is about more than locking up traffickers. A 2007 report by the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery Task Force laid out deeper challenges:

Societal attitudes that perpetuate human trafficking should be examined and consciousness-raising measures should affirm that everyone in the United States is entitled to basic human rights, no matter where they came from or what their circumstances. To help human trafficking victims escape, victims must trust that they will not be deported; and that their immediate health, safety and housing needs will be met…. NGOs need sufficient funds to provide services to human trafficking victims, including caseworker, shelter, legal support, health care, interpreter and other services, as well as for community outreach and measures to help victims become self sufficient. A critical strategy to end human trafficking is to address the poverty, gender discrimination and poor labor conditions in “source” countries that lead vulnerable people to undertake a risky migration into developed countries.

The Coalition of Imokalee Workers, which has done groundbreaking organizing work with immigrant farmworkers, says the culpability lies in every link in the production chain:

…the ultimate solution to modern-day slavery in agribusiness lies on the "demand side" of the US produce market — the major food-buying corporations that profit from the artificially-low cost of US produce picked by workers in sweatshop and, in the worst cases, slavery conditions. Ultimately, those modern mega corporations must leverage their vast resources and market influence as major produce buyers to clean up slavery and other labor abuses in their supply chains once and for all. Both aspects of the Anti-Slavery Campaign — the day-to-day investigative efforts and the longer-term work to eliminate the market conditions that allow modern-day slavery to flourish — operate on the common principle that the most effective weapon against forced labor is an aware worker community engaged in the defense of its own labor rights.

Occasional busts of abusive employers and, in extreme cases, human trafficking rings, are one step toward justice for immigrant workers. But the roots of human bondage lurk in the social structures that deny people basic dignity every day. Image: Palm Beach Post