By Samantha Kelley
It’s 7am; a new day in my privileged Western life made possible for the most part on the suffering and shortages in the Third World and not least by the scourge of the modern day slave trade, comfortably renamed human trafficking.
I haven’t given a thought to the 8 year old child who made my Egyptian cotton sheets, the bleeding hands of the man forced to harvest the Dominican sugarcane for my morning coffee, or the Congolese mother who was raped without recourse as she mined for coltan, a mineral found in my smartphone. All victims of forced labor and without any recourse to every American’s right of ‘liberty and justice for all’ as enshrined by the Founding Fathers (ironically at the height of the slave trade in the New World).
Ostensibly (and legally) slavery came to an end in the 19th century thanks to abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and William Wilberforce. In practice, however, human enslavement is thriving. Around the world, it persists in the form of trafficking for forced labor with practices similar to slavery, debt bondage, and involuntary servitude, fueled by consumer demand for goods and services at the lowest possible cost.
Although the Asia-Pacific region and Africa have the highest prevalence of labor trafficking – with 12 million and 4 million forced laborers, respectively – the countries earning the highest annual profit per victim are developed economies like the US. Private sector businesses can keep their overhead low by trafficking their labor, generating profits in excess of $150 billion per year.
Fighting human trafficking is so difficult because of our aloofness about what is actually is. It’s not just about sex; it’s also about the products we buy. Look around you – you’re likely to find traces of human trafficking in your own home.
Forced Labor’s Women and Girls
While the world may have known little about human trafficking 20 years ago, today we’re inundated with information. Billboards off highways, investigative specials on CNN, and Hollywood’s elite offering anti-trafficking advocacy all inform us of the horrors of human trafficking. Overwhelmingly, these awareness-raising campaigns represent human trafficking as the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls. Images of sex trafficking are pervasive, and are usually represented by the paradigmatic victim, a schoolgirl or naïve daughter, duped by a family friend with promises of a better life abroad. As this narrative typically goes, their innocence is lost at the hands of captors to the sex trade.
Rebuking traffickers is easy. Our everyday lives are so far removed from sex trafficking that we can afford to cast blame and responsibility. How disgusting. Reprehensible. Those poor girls.
As advocates for women’s and girls’ rights, showing our support for anti-trafficking initiatives that offer an opportunity to liberate those in sexual servitude is a quick win for constructing our identities as champions of social justice. Many of us have even seen ourselves at one point or another as part of the solution to human trafficking, donating time or money to anti-trafficking organizations, attending local lectures on the subject, discussing modern day slavery with friends and co-workers, or even writing about it on our favorite social media outlets.
While sex trafficking does occur, viewing the entirety of human trafficking through the lens of female sexual exploitation detracts from an enhanced understanding of the phenomenon, making efforts to combat it worldwide largely unsuccessful. Not only are men and boys also trafficked for sex, but the majority of human trafficking cases exist outside of sex trafficking. In 2012, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that 78 percent of the world’s 21 million trafficked persons are victims of forced labor.
Unfortunately, despite our ease at chastising traffickers of the sex trade, labor trafficking is firmly embedded in our society, making it highly likely that you and I are complicit. Rather than focusing advocacy efforts only on sex trafficking, we need to open our eyes to the forced labor practices taking place around us. According to the ILO, the sad reality is that more than half of labor trafficking’s victims are women and girls, forced to make the clothes we wear, pick grapes for our wines, or cut the fresh flowers we receive on Valentine’s Day.
Females are targeted for labor trafficking due to gender inequalities that manifest in disproportional access to education, employment, and social mobility, leading them to seek jobs in the informal economy. Industries such as garment manufacturing, agriculture, food services, domestic work, hotel and office cleaning, or childcare, have the mechanisms in place to easily conceal instances of labor trafficking. These women and girls are recruited through fraudulent contracts, receive pay below basic subsistence levels (if paid at all), work 16 hours or more a day in isolated conditions, suffer adverse health effects from hazardous chemicals, and are sexually harassed and raped.
Apparel industry supply chains are often mired in labor trafficking and exploitation. Transnational corporations are increasingly disaggregated, as textile producers, apparel manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers are spread out over global domains, leading to an overall lack of transparency and accountability. Competition to offer consumers the lowest prices on clothing within an under-regulated market provides employers incentive to use exploitative labor practices. Recall the Nike scandal of the 1990s, when the Nike brand became more synonymous with sweatshops than with Michael Jordan.
While we’d like to think that these atrocities are merely incidents of the past, the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh serves as a grim reminder. As reported by the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, 80 percent of the factory workers were young women between the ages of 18 and 20. They worked 90 to 100 hours per week, making less than 30 cents an hour, with only two days off per month. Despite the appearance of large cracks in the factory walls on April 24, 2013, managers told employees that should they not return to work the following day, they would be docked a month’s pay. Those who objected were beaten with sticks. At 8:45am on April 25, the walls of the eight-story building collapsed, ending the lives of the 1,137 workers inside. Companies with ties to Rana Plaza are extensive, making it highly likely that both you and I have clothing made there.
Our Produce and Wine
There’s a reason why your supermarket’s produce or favorite budget wine is so cheap. Agriculture is no stranger to labor trafficking, and it’s pervasive here in the US. Not only are undocumented migrant farmworkers at risk, but those within the US government’s H-2A temporary visa program as well. The H-2A visa allows foreign guestworkers, the majority of which are from Mexico, to come to the US for short-term seasonal work, such as harvesting tomatoes, oranges, or grapes. Institutionalized US laws create conditions for agricultural labor trafficking to prosper. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 exclude farmworkers from overtime pay, the right to organize, the right to a minimum wage, and they set the legal age for farm work at 12.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in order to bring shoppers the lowest prices on goods, companies pay harvesters a piece-meal, per bucket rate for picked produce rather than an hourly wage. The standard rate is 45 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, 85 cents per 90-pound box of oranges, or 1 cent per pound of grape clusters. Despite migrant workers being told at the outset they’d earn enough money to pay off high-interest company loans used to finance travel and visa costs, the low pay, compounded by inflated company prices for clothing, food, and rent, render many in debt bondage.
Those most vulnerable to forced agricultural labor are migrant women and girls. A SPLC survey found that 90 percent of female migrant farmworkers in California were sexually harassed. Rape is common as well. The SPLC reported in 2013 that female farmworkers in Fresno, California referred to their company’s field as fil de calzon, or field of panties, because of the high frequency of rape by supervisors when the women worked in the fields. Limited English language ability, coupled by a fear of losing valid immigration status and deportation, leads to a reticence to report such sexual abuse.
Flowers radiate beauty throughout our homes and offices. According to the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), the US spends $18 billion per year on fresh cut flowers, the bulk coming from Colombia and Ecuador. Sixty-percent of these workers are women, while many additional workers are children. The ILRF reports 55 percent of Ecuadorian flower workers have been victims of sexual harassment, and 66 percent of Colombian flower workers suffer from pesticide-related health problems, ranging from headaches and impaired vision to congenital malformations and neurological and respiratory problems. In both countries, women are forced to take pregnancy tests, and if found to be pregnant, are fired. Oxfam reports that shifts are so long that working mothers drop their children off at nursery school at 4am and are only able to return at 10pm to pick them up. Most workers earn $7 a day, about the cost that one small bouquet sells in the US.
Despite a skewed narrative framing sex trafficking and human trafficking as synonymous, it’s only a subset of the much larger problem. While many of us claim to be advocates for advancing women’s and girls’ rights around the world, in sensationalizing sex trafficking, attention is diverted away from our own actions that perpetuate the abusive labor practices harming them.
In an economy still on the rebound from the clutches of recession, we have all sought the lowest prices on goods and services for our families, friends, and selves. Yet, without casting a critical eye at why these prices are so low, for many of us, we’ll continue to create demand for forced labor’s destructive business model.