Slavery Is Alive And Well In America, Fueled By The Need For Cheap Labor

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ChildHarvestsTobaccoBy Frederick Reese

(A 16-year-old worker harvests tobacco on a farm in Kentucky. (Photo: Marcus Beasdale/Human
Rights Watch))

[T]he 13th Amendment explicitly prohibits slavery in all forms, except as criminal punishment, yet as many as 60,000 native-born Americans and both lawfully-admitted and undocumented immigrants are forced into bonded labor, sex trafficking, or forced, unpaid servitude.

A broken immigration system and a failure to effectively respond to a call for reforms reflect on some hard truths about immigrant life in America — including the fact that slavery still exists in the United States and is as pervasive as it has ever been. The media and the public, however, generally tend to focus on sex trafficking, creating a situation in which the realities of labor trafficking are overlooked or ignored wholesale.

“Those of us who work with survivors of trafficking for labor are affected by this narrow focus of media and policy,” said Tiffany Williams, coordinator for the Beyond Survival Campaign for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in a statement to MintPress News.

Williams noted that the focus solely on sex trafficking compromises efforts to effectively deal with other forms of human trafficking.

“If communities are not educated about the connections between worker rights, immigration rights, and human trafficking because they don’t see stories involving labor trafficking in the media with these links, then we as a society will not be able to address the root causes of this crime, and will be fighting this battle for eternity,” Williams continued.

In part, forced labor in the U.S. is fueled by the federal government’s approach to guest and immigrant workers and the public’s inconsistent efforts to force pressure toward making comprehensive changes. This situation reflects the problem with debating economic concerns in morality situations and how financial concerns can mitigate or even negate legislative intentions.


The H-2 program and the federal government’s silent go-ahead on exploitation

One form of this forced labor, for example, exists under the federal H-2 program, which provides entry visas for guest workers engaged in temporary farm labor and various non-agricultural industrial work. Analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found that the protections offered to guest workers by law are typically not honored, with little or no governmental oversight. Private, pro bono attorneys typically will not represent guest workers due to the ambiguity of the workers’ legal status, and guest workers are not eligible for federal or state-funded legal services.

This modern interpretation of the Bracero system — a 1942 bilateral agreement with Mexico that provided the U.S. with temporary agricultural workers — has given way to a semi-recognized system of indentured servitude. Following the 2007 State of the Union address, when President George W. Bush called for a clear and organized way for foreign workers to come to the U.S. on a temporary basis, former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charles Rangel described the guest-worker program as “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”

Otto Rafael Boton-Gonzalez is an H-2B forestry worker from Guatemala. In interviews with the SPLC — detailed in the center’s 2013 report “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States,” Boton-Gonzalez detailed the heavy-handed tactics that were used to force discontented workers to stay on the job:

“When the supervisor would see that a person was ready to leave the job because the pay was so bad, he would take our papers from us. He would rip up our visa and say, ‘You don’t want to work? Get out of here then. You don’t want to work? Right now I will call immigration to take your papers and deport you.”

With no real mechanism to replace entry documents, the threat of an employer permanently holding or destroying visas or passports would mean that a guest worker would face immediate apprehension and prosecution and the possibility of permanently being banned from re-entering the U.S. if they were to leave their employers. While many of these employers justify these actions by claiming that document confiscation is the only way to ensure that the workers will honor their contracts, many advocates — including the SPLC — argue that this is creating a system in which the worker has no recourse against employer misconduct.

This misconduct — which includes making wage deductions that are beneficial to the employer, underreporting hours worked or overtime, paying workers based on work quantity or performance units instead of per hour, violating the terms of the hiring agreement, and failing to address or remedy injuries — are rarely prosecuted and are considered de facto industry-standard practices because they occur with such frequency. Further, some courts have held that an H-2B job offer is not an enforceable contract that can be defended in a court of law. All of this tends to have the net effect of the worker being paid less than the minimum federal or state hourly wage or the adverse effect wage rate.

Much of the problem with the H-2 program is actually ingrained in the law itself. The H-2 program was established to create temporary relief in situations in which there are no Americans available to do a job. The employer is required to provide the U.S. Department of Labor with documented evidence that bringing in the guest worker will not adversely affect the wages and working standards of Americans doing similar jobs.

Those enrolled in the H-2A program — field workers — are meant to be paid the prevailing local wage for the crop they pick, receive at least three-quarters of the total hours agreed to in their contracts, and receive workers’ compensation, travel reimbursement, eligibility for federally-funded legal services and free housing and meals.

Yet most guest workers are enrolled in the H-2B program. While the Labor Department implemented substantial rule changes to the program in 2008, the H-2B program still fails to offer some of the essential protections offered by the H-2A program, such as the “three-quarters guarantee,” travel reimbursement, protections from human trafficking, and access to legal and other basic services. Attempts to reform the H-2B rules were blocked by congressional Republicans — under the pressure of the agricultural lobby — in 2011 and 2012.

While the H-2B visa program is specifically designed for non-agricultural work, intentional or accidental misclassification of the work to be done during employment certification can allow growers to classify migrant laborers as H-2B, which would require less pay and benefits to be offered. As the grower can request multiple visas for unnamed workers, there are few institutional checks to counter labor abuses.

One such incident of unchecked manipulation of the H-2B program came in 2007, when migrant workers filed a federal class action suit against Mississippi-based marine oil-rig company Signal International. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal hired approximately 500 skilled metalworkers from India in 2006 to repair offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. To get these jobs, the metalworkers were forced to pay as much as $25,000 each to Signal’s recruiters, and they were promised that their work visas would be converted into permanent residency or “green” cards upon completion of the work.

After realizing there was no feasible way that a H-2B visa can be converted into a green card, some of the workers started to protest, prompting Signal management to look for a way to fire the perceived troublemakers. Those charged with firing the metalworkers were told by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent: “Don’t give them any advance notice. Take them all out of the line on the way to work; get their personal belongings; get them in a van, and get their tickets, and get them to the airport, and send them back to India.”

“The Indian workers who came to this country through Signal’s recruitment effort were skilled laborers seeking opportunity, but they were forced into modern-day indentured servitude,” said Daniel Werner, a senior supervising attorney for SPLC, reflecting the fact that many of these workers had incurred massive debt or sold their homes to work for Signal. “These cases highlight the urgent need for stronger foreign labor recruiter regulations and better protections for workers – some of which are included in the U.S. Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill.”

The H-2 program represents but one aspect of modern slavery. While there are no official numbers detailing how many people are engaged in forced labor in the U.S., the International Labor Organization estimated in 2012 that 1.5 million of the world’s 20.9 million forced labor slaves are in Europe or North America, including an estimated 14.2 million who are involved in forced non-sexual labor exploitation, including manufacturing, agriculture, construction and domestic work.


The slavery epidemic

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The proliferation of forced labor — recognized by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime as the third-most lucrative global criminal activity, after drug trafficking and counterfeiting — reflects an uncomfortable reality. While no country officially condones slavery and most actively oppose it legislatively and on moral grounds, the demand for cheap labor creates a temptation to supercede labor controls.

In countries such as Haiti, Pakistan, India and Mauritania, the share of the population currently enslaved in bonded labor, as child soldiers or forced brides, as forced prostitution, or as property in absolute ownership is shockingly high. In India, for example, more than 1 percent of the nation’s nearly 1 billion residents are slaves, according to Australia-based Walk Free Foundation in its 2014 Global Slavery Index. Walk Free estimates that 4 percent of the population of the West African nation of Mauritania is enslaved, with the aid group SOS Slavery estimating an enslavement rate as high as 20 percent of that nation’s population — this, despite the passage of strict anti-slavery laws there since 2007.

In theory, the less developed a nation is, and the less a nation invests in human rights protections, the greater the chance slavery exploitation will occur there. In Haiti, for example, the practice of restaveks (sending a child from a poor family to live with and work for a wealthy family) has became an ingrained part of Haitian society, with one in 10 Haitian children thought to participate.

Accordingly, Western Europe and North America have the lowest rates of slavery worldwide. Yet this is far from a set rule. The U.S., for example, has approximately 60,000 slaves, according to Walk Free. In addition to the H-2 program, there has been a rash of involuntary non-sexual labor trafficking for work on farms, in private homes, and in restaurants and hotels. This influx has been encouraged, in part, due to harshened legislation restricting and penalizing illegal immigration.

Additionally, the need for cheap goods has led many American corporations to offer substantial support — either deliberately or inadvertently — to global human trafficking and forced labor. For example, despite the creation of CocoaPro — an alliance of American and European chocolatiers committed to removing child and forced labor from cocoa bean harvesting — and Fair Trade pricing for coffee, forced labor proliferates in both chocolate and coffee harvesting. Many of the involved companies, such as Nestle, continue to buy cocoa and coffee beans from countries that are known to utilize child labor. To date, only Ferrero and Mars have made commitments to end their involvement with child labor in harvesting.


The intersection of slavery and trade

Ultimately, the economic incentive of cheap labor is the factor that keeps slavery a reality today. Some argue that education and outreach are the major ways of addressing this negative effect of the profit motive.

“There is a global awakening to the realities of slavery; that it was never eradicated, but just made illegal,” Terry FitzPatrick, director of communications for Free the Slaves, told MintPress. “While there are highly financed criminal organizations that are bribing officials to permit international human trafficking, there are also good actors working toward annihilating these forms of slavery.”

“This is a situation in which all of the nations of the world have accepted is neither economically necessary nor morally justified; the question of slavery today is a question of how to educate the public on the immorality and illegality of the action and to find and prosecute those perpetrating these actions.”


Breakdown of slavery population worldwide by estimated slave count per country. (Note: Gray areas represent a lack of available country data.)

The public’s short-term memory is a key problem with creating long-term strategies toward fighting slavery. During the build-up to the 2014 Super Bowl in the Meadowlands, for example, a great deal of attention was paid toward combating child sex trafficking in the New York City metro area. In recent years, a trend of escalated child prostitution following major sports events has been tracked. Yet after the Super Bowl ended, that focus diminished.

The difficulty of eradicating slavery can be defined in the difference between intent and action. For example, the U.S. has some of the most restrictive legislation against slavery and human trafficking, but economic interests and an inconsistent public focus on the issue have allowed the laws to not be enforced or to be enforced less stringently than intended.


Likelihood or vulnerability toward enslavement based on strength of anti-slavery laws per country. (Note: Gray areas represent a lack of available country data.)

Additionally, addressing trafficking as a standalone crime is difficult in many jurisdictions. In the U.S., for example, many prosecutors opt out of prosecuting human trafficking on anti-slavery or anti-trafficking charges, seeking instead to prosecute on charges more familiar to judges and juries, such as rape, kidnapping, pandering, or promoting prostitution. This decision can also be influenced or conflated by the prosecutor’s bias either for or against the victim.

“Interviews with state and local prosecutors revealed that the background characteristics and

personal circumstances of human trafficking victims often influenced the prosecution of human trafficking cases at the state level,” reads a joint report by Northeastern University and the Urban Institute to the National Institute of Justice, “Identifying Challenges to Improve the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases Executive Summary.”

“In some instances, a victim’s background (e.g., whether a victim came from an unstable home without supportive parents or guardians) caused prosecutors to dismiss or overlook human trafficking cases. In instances where prosecutors accepted human trafficking cases for prosecution, a victim’s background also affected whether a case was prosecuted or amended to lesser, non-trafficking charges.”


cap 4
Likelihood or vulnerability to enslavement based on national human rights attitude and laws. (Note: Gray areas indicate a lack of available country data.)

Most experts believe that the way forward toward eradicating modern-day slavery is to take a proactive stance — instead of a reactive one — toward the problem. Creating public awareness and pressure toward forcing policymakers and the law enforcement community to invest more funding and focus on addressing this issue, educating the public to recognize the signs of forced labor, creating public policies that encourage legal immigration and responsible responsible issuance and monitoring of work visas, and punishing companies that knowingly benefit from or encourage the use of exploited labor, are essential for creating a blueprint that would not only reduce the slavery footprint here in the U.S., but globally, as well.

“In the last ten years, sex trafficking has received more attention than ever before, while labor trafficking remains largely undiscussed,” said Cordelia Anderson, founder of Minnesota-based Sensibilities Prevention Services, a sexual violence and interpersonal abuse consultancy. “It took political will to put sex trafficking on the conversation, but even in this, the attention is drawn toward the comfortable: sex trafficking instead of prostitution, child trafficking instead of adult trafficking, international instead of domestic.”

Anderson noted that because human trafficking involves economic and trade elements, consideration of these issues may mean that people or businesses who are opposed to human trafficking in principle make different choices in practice.

“In order to get to a point where we can truly make progress in fighting human trafficking, we need to get to a point where we, as a people, recognize that human rights and human dignity matter more than stuff,” she said.


Originally published at Mint Press News.

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