America’s Forced Labor Problem

Every few months, a new focus on human trafficking pops up in traditional or social media. The story is almost always the same: young white women in your neighborhood could end up trafficked for sex! Sexual slavery! Very rarely does this new attention actually inform their viewers on the reality of human trafficking and how drastically different it is from sex work performed by consenting sex workers. Even less frequently discussed is the tragedy of labor trafficking. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, as of this writing, 824 cases of labor trafficking have been reported in the United States. This just takes into consideration those that have actually been reported to authorities, and does not reflect the actual number of labor trafficking cases in the United States.

Everyone who has stepped foot outside their home in the US knows that we have a long, disgusting history of slavery in this country. We know there was a point in time when black humans were kept as slaves and forced into labor against their will. We know that in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as a first step towards ending this abhorrent practice. Slavery did not end with Lincoln, and it did not end in 1863.

The United States is still benefiting from and profiting from slave labor both in the country and abroad. In December of 2015, the AP reported that many US supermarkets were selling shrimp peeled by slave labor in Thailand. According to the AP’s report, people would be sold to Burmese traffickers and forced to work in a factory peeling shrimp. They were held in shacks and paid little to nothing, and their movements were always supervised by someone.

21 million people are victims of forced labor. 21 million people are forced, in 2016, to do labor against their will, with no payment and often violent supervision. They are regarded not as humans, but as cogs in a capitalist machine trying to make more and more money. These are humans with a very real need for liberation, but popular media is often silent on the epidemic. Sex trafficking is more exciting and tends to feel personal for many. After all, there are few things many people can imagine than forced sexual slavery.

This is not to say that the subject of sex trafficking should not be addressed, because it absolutely should. Slavery is still slavery regardless of what labor is being forced upon them. The difference comes down mostly to nuance. Laws prohibiting sex trafficking also focus on other areas of sex work, and many times to not differentiate between actual human trafficking and sex work performed by adults who willingly engage in that labor. When drafting laws to protect people from forced labor, we do not attack the entire industry it is in. If there are garment workers being forced to work, we do not shut down or criminalize the garment industry as a whole.

So if we remove sexual labor from the forced labor pool of human trafficking, we’re left with very different attitudes. On one hand, we find stories and statistics about sex trafficking so alarming because it is a nightmare many people share. We live in a society that does not value or recognize sex work as actual work, so how can we tell the difference between sex workers and trafficking victims? But on the other hand, forced labor isn’t sexy. It is heartbreaking and the human cost is very real, but the headlines aren’t as sensational. It is one of the biggest tragedies of the subject — that there are people out there, enslaved, and no doubt everyone who hears their stories hurts for them. But we as Americans do not hurt enough, and we do not turn our hurt into action. According to the Atlantic, “U.S. customs records show the shrimp made its way into the supply chains of major U.S. food stores and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Dollar General and Petco, along with restaurants such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden.” We hear these stories, but we continue to shop at these grocery stores. We don’t put in the work to ensure we aren’t spending money on food given to us through slave labor.

Americans, we are outraged and heartbroken by slavery. Our history with it is disturbing, and it would make anyone uncomfortable to hear that slave labor is still being profited on in this country. Perhaps it will ignite some outrage. At the end of the day, millions still buy their shrimp from Walmart. We still buy clothing made in sweatshops then sold at retailers like H&M and Forever21. Capitalism has created an environment where it is impossible to buy ethically. Perhaps that is why so few people take action when slavery is discovered. Perhaps they feel helpless. The food will still be there, and at prices they need it to be at. The clothing will still be there, and they’ll actually be able to afford it.

The vast majority of Americans, I believe, would not purchase food or clothing touched by slave labor if they had the choice. But many don’t. Sometimes shopping at Walmart is the only option you have, and that is the fault of the US as a country. It is up to our government to do what citizens cannot do so easily. They must put pressure on companies not to profit off of slave labor, and to ensure that their employees are paid fair wages even when those factories are far abroad.

If the United States wants to combat the problem of labor trafficking and make a real difference, it must do more. There must be more oversight in corporations, and corporations must be held responsible when they sell goods created by forced labor. The human cost of those products will never be worth it.

For more information on human trafficking in all its forms, please check out the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

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