Human Trafficking - Call It What It Is: Slavery

March-April 2014


Most Americans do not know that victims of trafficking are right here, suffering in the dark. Trafficking is practiced in many forms and in places you'd least expect. The simple truth is, humans keep slaves; we always have.

This is capitalism at its worst. Before the Civil War, slaves cost a lot. In the 1850s, a slave sold for around $1,200. In today's currency, that comes to somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000. This level of investment predisposed the owners to take care of their human property, at least to the extent that their longevity and their productivity were ensured.

Today's slave can be bought for as little as $100. This price tag makes the modern slave not only affordable, but also disposable. Further, trafficking comes with a "bundle" of other crimes, including kidnapping, document fraud, assault, torture, rape and sometimes homicide.

According to a U.S. State Department study, some 17,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States from at least 35 countries and enslaved each year. Some victims are smuggled into the U. S. across the Mexican or Canadian borders; others arrive at our major airports daily, carrying either real or forged papers. Victims from Africa, Asia, India, Latin America and the former Soviet Union come on the promise of a better life, with an opportunity to work and prosper in America. Many arrive in the hope of earning enough money to support or send for their families. In order to pay for the journey, they use their life savings, or go into massive debt to people who will take advantage of them. Instead of opportunity, they find bondage. They can be found — or more accurately, not found — in all 50 states, working as farmhands, domestics, sweatshop and factory laborers, gardeners, workers in the restaurant, construction and sex industries. These people are not poorly paid employees, working at jobs they might not like. They are workers who are unable to leave and forced to live under the constant threat of violence.

Although today's term may be human trafficking, by both historical and legal definition, these people are slaves. What is particularly infuriating is the fact that the crime of trafficking almost always goes unpunished. When the U.S. government and the media address the subject of human trafficking, they tend to focus on sexual exploitation, whose victims are subjected to serial rape, physical injury, psychological damage, and constant exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.

Most of the less sensational forms of slave labor are right under our noses. Domestics and nannies account for a significant number of America's slaves. Agriculture is another major area of human trafficking. There are unknown numbers of victims of forced labor growing and picking our fruit and vegetables. They come here looking for steady work and a decent wage. Instead, they are enslaved by crime syndicates, families or individuals in such states as Colorado, New York, North and South Carolina, Georgia, California and Florida.

Grassroots groups, organizers and activists have campaigned for years to improve pay and working conditions for exploited agricultural workers. Such iconic corporations as McDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King and Whole Foods have signed agreements not to support growers who exploit and mistreat migrant workers and small-scale farmers.

So who's doing what to free America's slaves? Of the relatively few cases in which slaves are rescued, only around one-third result from government action. Another third comes from the victim escaping on his or her own; and the last third comes from the efforts of what we call Good Samaritans. As often as not, a concerned citizen will notice that something isn't quite right about that housekeeper next door who cries a lot, keeps to herself and rarely leaves the house. A call to the authorities can bring about an investigation, but generally, sadly, we don't know what clues to look for. We're not alone; usually, the authorities don't have any idea what slavery looks like, either.

For instance, according to federal law, any minor — male or female — engaged in prostitution is automatically classified as a victim of human trafficking. There are no exemptions to this law. However, unless he or she has received the proper training, a police officer can look at an underage prostitute and see just a prostitute. The possibility that she's in a coercive situation never occurs to the officer. She is arrested, and out of fear, says nothing. And so she's victimized three times: first by the trafficker; then by the johns who serially rape her; and finally by the system that should be structured to rescue and support her, but instead, merely ensures that the cycle continues.

There is major federal legislation in place; it's called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act — the TVPA — and it was passed in 2000. Every two or three years, it has undergone a congressional reauthorization. Significant improvements have been made to the law, but much still remains to be done.

Meanwhile, all 50 states have passed their own anti-human trafficking laws, but most of them focus mainly, if not entirely, on the issue of prostitution and sex slavery. In addition, the state laws usually concentrate on catching and punishing the traffickers, and ignore the vital issues of long-term support and counseling for the survivors.

It's essential that Americans are made aware that this blight is flourishing in our country today. Without an educated public, there is no hope of eliminating slavery due to trafficking.

Only through our awareness, our concern and our commitment can trafficking be stopped. This problem is not buried in the dust of the past and is clearly within our power to address and to resolve. I find it both challenging and exhilarating to think that we can be the generation to finally end this affliction.

RON SOODALTER is a writer and lecturer based in Cold Spring, N.Y. He is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader (Washington Square Press, 2006) and co-author with Kevin Bales of The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today (University of California Press, 2009).


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