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Slavery in the 21st Century: A Call for Action
By Angel Colón Rivera, James Marshall Public Policy Scholar

It has been just over six months since I began my tenure as the James Marshall Public Policy Scholar.  My term with SPSSI coincides with two timely events. First, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act is up for reappropriations and Congress will be debating ways in which to fund or cut several provisions of the most comprehensive anti-trafficking law the United States has to date.  This means that throughout my first year as the Marshall scholar, numerous events are being hosted, discussing the future of this Act.  Second, in September 2010 the United States was struck by its most severe labor trafficking case since the passing of the original Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. This high-profile case included the indictment of the Los Angeles based company Global Horizons Manpower, which was accused of abusing the federal guest worker program to lure 400 Thai workers under false promises of steady work and decent pay. These workers were instead held in virtual slavery on farms owned by six contractors in Hawaii and Washington State.

Due to the obscured nature of this crime, empirically valid analyses regarding the number of people who live as slaves or in slave-like conditions do not currently exist.  The estimates in the United States alone range from 5,000 to 60,000 people living as slaves, with some organizations estimating much higher numbers.  Paradoxically, despite the hidden nature of this crime, most of us come into contact with slaves quite frequently without even realizing who they are or what they are being subjected to.  Whether it’s a waiter or waitress at your favorite restaurant, the gardener that mows your neighborhood lawns, the dancer at your local gentleman’s club or your neighbor’s nanny, slaves live among us. 

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines severe forms of trafficking as, “Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery”.  This broadly conceptualized definition of trafficking guides our national public policy today.  Broadly defining such a complex phenomenon can be useful, however treating trafficking with a dichotomizing distinction between sexual and labor exploitation undermines functional approaches to combating this problem.  This is because victims who are forced into sexual slavery are often forced to commit currency-producing crimes such as selling drugs--which can be interpreted as forced labor. On the other hand, victims who are forced into labor exploitation may be sexually abused as well.   This dichotomization leads to disparate reporting and prosecuting, as well as popularizing the notion that trafficking in persons is purely a crime of sexual exploitation.  More investigations and prosecutions have taken place for trafficking for sexual exploitation than for labor exploitation offenses. Despite this fact, the Department of State’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report asserts that, within the United States, human trafficking occurs primarily for labor exploitation.  The International Labor Organization estimates that for every trafficking victim subjected to forced prostitution, nine people are forced to work worldwide.  

Unfortunately, those who are most vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking for the purposes of labor exploitation are migrants whose search for a better life leaves them at the mercy of unscrupulous recruiters.  Our complex system for processing legal migrants hired by organizations working on American soil suffers from serious communication gaps that stifle proper implementation of the current laws in place against trafficking.  This lack of oversight allows 400 Thai workers to be trafficked into our country using our own legal system only to be deprived of basic human rights. 

Although trafficking schemes vary from case to case, a frequent story I have come across involves the exploitation of our own legal systems’ vulnerabilities for the purposes of financial gains at the expense of vulnerable migrants.  The complex process consists of local businesses petitioning to the Department of Labor the need for foreign workers to cover positions that American citizens will not take.  These petitions then move on to the Department of Homeland Security to allow or deny the amount of visas necessary to cover that need.  While this process unfolds, the hiring company solicits the help of recruiting organizations to scout for people in other countries willing to risk their livelihood for job security in the United States.  In some cases, recruiters will make promises of great wages and working conditions as well as the prospect of naturalization in the United States.  Once selected, these unscrupulous recruiters charge the recruited migrants exorbitant amounts of money under the pretext of visa processing and service fees and transportation into the United States. This practice is both fraudulent and illegal and leaves the victims in a state of debt bondage.  Migrants are then coached by their traffickers on how to answer the questions asked by the consular officers of our Department of State who are unaware that they’re talking to potential victims.  Held in debt bondage and unaware that they have rights, migrant workers withstand many types of abuses out of fear of losing the very jobs they need to repay their loans and later be deported back to their countries of origin. This practice of corruption that leads to enslavement must be stopped. 

There are many organizations out there doing outstanding work in the fight against human trafficking.  Many states have active anti-human trafficking task forces created by partnerships between public and private organizations, government agencies and local law enforcement.  The Department of Justice has created an Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force Strategy and Operations E-guidein order to strengthen existing task forces, as well as create new ones.  As a SPSSI member and social justice advocate, I encourage you to become involved in the fight to eradicate modern day slavery:  Find out if there are local task forces in your area.  If there aren’t, consider the possibility of starting one.  Encourage your local elected officials to enact anti-trafficking laws or initiatives.  Develop research projects to assess the multifaceted effects of human trafficking.  Simply be aware of your surroundings, understanding that the next person you talk to might be a slave.

For more information or questions on any portion of this article, please contact me at


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