Slavery in Our Time

By Chen, Michelle | In These Times, August 2010 | Go to article overview

Slavery in Our Time


Chen, Michelle, In These Times


ONE-HUNDRED-AND-FIFTY YEARS after the abolition of slavery, the State Department has acknowledged that people Ln the United States continue to be bought and sold as property.

The department's 2010 "Trafficking in Persons" (TIP) report, a global review of human txaificking and civic and legal responses to it, lists the United States for the first time among the nations that harbor modern-day slavery.

The report was a long time in coming. In 2001, when Washington was rolling out landmark anti-traffkking legislation, Maria, a Mexican woman, testified before the House Committee on International Relations on her experience with sex slavery in Florida. "If any of the girls refused to be with a customer, we were beaten. If we adamantly refused, the bosses would show us a lesson by raping us brutally. We worked six days a week, twelve hours a day. Our bodies were sore and swollen. If anyone became pregnant we were forced to have abortions. The cost of the abortion was added to the smuggling debt," she said.

The report gives the United States high marks for its efforts to combat trafficking, but victims remain scattered throughout the workforce, hidden from view: the captive migrant tomato picker, the prostitute bonded by a smuggling debt, the domestic servant working without pay.

The media often focus on stories of young girls lured into prostitution rings. But government data suggest that "more foreign victims are found in labor trafficking than sex trafficking," particularly Ln "above ground" sectors like hotel work and home healthcare. Estimates vary, but the number of victims worldwide could be more than 12 million children and adults.

Today's slave trade capitalizes on vast inequalities, sharpened by economic globalization, that spur migration across national borders. Many governments have instituted anti-trafficking policies, but with uneven success. The TIP 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 system, slavery trickles into the United States through deep cracks in labor and immigration laws.

Victims often remain hidden because they depend on their bosses not only for their livelihoods but for protection from immigration authorities. Even for documented workers, legal status is not a safeguard, and precarious 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 on lawful visas, and then ending up in human trafficking .

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