Whatever date you guess that slavery ended in the United States, you will be wrong.
Uncounted thousands of men, women and children are now enslaved in every state of the Union today, working in construction, in gardens, in orchards, in stores, in homes as domestics and as sex slaves. The number is uncounted because it is difficult to identify all of them.
The US government estimates around 16,000 people are trafficked into the country every single year and a very high number of US citizens (mostly children) are also being held against their will and forced to work.
All told, Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter tell us, in their very provoking book, “The Slave Next Door -Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today,” that a ‘conservative’ estimate is 50,000 slaves, and the number is growing.
Bales is president of DC freetheslaves.net and sociology professor at Rochampton U and Ron Soodalter is a Lincoln scholar and on the board of the Abraham Lincoln Institute.
Slavery is a dramatic word which numerous groups use to draw attention to their real injustices and misery. While in no way denigrating their suffering, we must remember that true slavery always obviates choice. And this article is about slavery. Whether through lies, threats or actual violence, slaves are held against their will and forced to work for nothing or very little beyond subsistence. Slaves are made to believe they are without options and cannot leave. And, as throughout history, the slaveholders profit.
When we learn how to look, we can identify these slaves in our own neighborhoods – perhaps in the homes of neighbours who are ‘helping’ a woman from another country by providing housing while she does housework and cares for the kids – many slaveholders start out seeking someone to “help and who will help out” whom they don’t have to pay much.
One out of four of all US slaves are enslaved domestics. Let’s be clear, we are definitely not talking Jennifer to here, nor are they starring in The Nanny Express, although such films might be part of the fantasy that lures them to believe the recruiters in their homelands. These women do not have control of their passports or work permits, do not speak English and are often beaten, abused, raped and kept in the most primitive of conditions at subsistence level.
They are made to feel afraid to leave the employment. Try talking with your friend’s domestic servant: where does she sleep, study, what does she do on her day off? The answers, if you get any, may upset you.
While some may enter the country illegally through coyotes, thousands of these women come legally every year from Guatemala, West Africa, Indonesia or the Philippines on B1 visas, whereby the employer promises to provide “reasonable living and working conditions”. The catch is that no one checks to see that this is done. [Some enter under A3 visas, which are diplomatic and if employers are found to be abusing their domestics, they are immune to prosecution and simply leave the country]. B1 visas are granted to a specific employer. Once in the country, the visa holder is quickly disabused of any notion of education and making a better life. The woman’s papers are taken away ‘for safe-keeping’ leaving her at the mercy of her employers. She probably owes money for her transport, fears for her family in the home country, and is correctly afraid that if she escapes she will be “out of status” and deported.
Bales and Soodalter, while not overtly charging racism, point to the difference between the B1 visas granted to women from the Southern Hemisphere or poorer nations to those J visas given with security networks, $500 education stipends and guaranteed minimum wage (all of which are promised to the B1 visa holders but not given) to middle-class northern European au pairs whose well being is routinely supervised and assured.
Although slaves are forced to work in as many occupations as the minds of the abusers can invent, the most visible one-half of all trafficking victims are foreign and native-born women and children who are forced into prostitution by both native and foreign human traffickers. Forced prostitution is, according to the federal government, the largest market for slave labor in America. A distinction is made here between sex workers who, however degrading one may believe their work, choose it willingly, and those who are serially raped, moved from state to state and forced to submit, suffering physical and psychological injury and constant exposure to STDs, including AIDS.
The laws against sex trafficking are confusing and local police frequently end up charging the victims with solicitation (johns are not often charged, ‘theyâ�Öre just being guys’, while pimps are now glamorized in rap and other media). Child prostitutes, and remember many are born and raised in the US, average between 11 and 14 years old, with some as young as 9.
Many Americans are also unaware of the plight of migrant workers. The triple whammy of megagrowers, giant fast food chains and huge corporate suppliers (oil, equipment, etc) compete for huge profits and lobby to prevent the farmworkers from organizing (they are not protected by the NLRB). While they can move from state to state, they will find the same economically distressing conditions wherever they go, particularly in the southeast. The situation is even worse for the enslaved farm worker who cannot leave the place or the job at all. Agriculture slavery is one of the big three of US human trafficking. Promised all kinds of jobs and brought in by coyotes, the workers are then sold to a farm crew leader who begins their debt bondage for their transport, selling price, rent and food. They are kept in subhuman conditions, often guarded by armed thugs, and frequently forcibly moved from state to state to pick our fruit and veggies in Florida, North and South Carolina and Georgia.
It’s about money
Employers, including pimps, will maintain they are actually helping their victims because they are living better than on the street or in their home countries. However, make no mistake, it’s about money. Slaves are economically exploited and the slaveholder profits.
There are few safe places for even the small numbers of slaves identified and freed. They need basics: such as someplace to sleep (at present there are 39 beds in the country for sexually exploited children so minors are often held in detention centers). There is very little auditing or supervision of the NGOs (many set up under Bush) charged with helping the survivors. A Catch 22 is that survivors need psychological help to be able to testify, but they cannot get that help unless they cooperate. These victims are terrified of their former employers and the threats made against their families. Too, they often feel ashamed or guilty or identify with their oppressors.
But victims, even minors, must cooperate with law enforcement to receive the desperately needed medical, psychological and social service benefits.
Slavery is based on violence. It is holding people against their will through threats or real violence, forcing them to work and paying them nothing beyond subsistence. The authors highlight the importance of learning to recognize slaves in our communities and what to do when a slave is identified. For the purposes of this article, if you find a slave, call the Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline 888-373-7888 or go to www.freetheslaves.net to learn more. PL