Driven by Globalization, Today's Slave Trade Thrives at Home and Abroad

"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 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 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 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 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
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
Richards, 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, Richards 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 TIP 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.