21st Century and No Emancipation in Sight: Did the Blue Campaign Miss the Point?

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Marie-Claire Brown


Modern slavery, generically referred to as human trafficking, is one of the highest sources of transnational organized criminal revenue with profits exceeding $150 billion annually and affecting more than 45 million people globally. It includes both private economy slavery and state-imposed forced labor, with the bulk of known profits coming from sex exploitation. Trafficking in persons is a significant industry. Those undetected profits can be easily transitioned into funds for other criminal or even terrorist activity. Modern slavery encompasses commercial sexual exploitation and forced marriages; the mining construction, agricultural and manufacturing industries; and domestic workers “employed” under conditions of forced labor by private citizens. Beyond its status as a transnational crime, “second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime,” modern slavery is the source of major global commerce. It also can serve as an open recruitment pool for combatants, brides, and sex slaves by extremist groups. While most of the U.S. law enforcement and homeland security activity focuses on the traditional sex industry, there are far more victims of forced labor and forced marriage worldwide. The question researched in this thesis is threefold: what is the current U.S. counter-slavery framework; whether an economic could garner effective results; and whether the models employed by other countries can effectively address modern slavery.
Modern slavery in its many forms is most prevalent in countries in or recently emerging from conflict. Conflicts cause human displacement, with most refugees unable to return home. It increases the risk of disease outbreaks and moreover reduces economic productivity, driving criminals to exploit persons fleeing conflict. These problems find their way into the United States through the sex, domestic, and agricultural industries, as well as through goods imported into the U.S. from countries deemed at risk of modern slavery.
This thesis explores and reviews some of the laws, regulations, policies, and available data to demonstrate that human trafficking is a serious national and homeland security problem. Looking primarily at the commercial, supply chain side of human trafficking, this paper demonstrates that there is more in the realm of modern slavery than the inhumanity and degradation of its victims. It is a source of major global commerce, in which we all partake. Some recommendations are offered to increase public awareness of the consequences of forced labor in mainstream America and to eradicate this heinous crime.
Modern slavery, including child forced labor, continues to affect the United States today. Its effects are interwoven into our daily lives and routines whether we know or not, and even more importantly, whether we choose to ignore that fact that we are a part of the problem. All in all, while de jure slavery may have been abolished, de facto slavery still remains prevalent in myriad forms across the globe. Indeed, as long as there is supply and demand for it, modern slavery will linger, the only difference being the transition from antiquity to ubiquity.
Admittedly, we as a nation are doing a fairly good job of dealing with one or more aspects of modern slavery. The laws are tough and the prosecutions and convictions are growing. Through public awareness, victims are coming forward and bystanders are willing to report. The U.S. anti-slavery framework is replete with tools to mount a frontal attack on modern slavery. The facts are widely known among lawmakers and policymakers They are no longer dancing around the subject, but rather calling it out by its proper name: slavery. The laws may appear tough but enforcement and penalties could be stronger, as adherence to the honor system of reporting or complying is not equal.
Examining the legal landscape of authorities to combat modern slavery, there is an obvious gap in the U.S. framework. Notwithstanding the acknowledgement by public officials and lawmakers that there is a significant problem, there does not appear to be the will to enforce existing modern slavery laws or promulgate new and better ones. At best, promoting corporate responsibility among businesses that are known to engage in trades at risk for forced labor, by adults and children, is all that is currently expected. Required disclosures are needed. When modern slavery is suspected in a company’s supply chain, meaningful efforts to bring criminal charges are virtually non-existent, partly because there is no baseline that a company is held to. The statutory and regulatory schemes are rendered ineffective if all covered businesses are not equally held accountable or if compliance is not properly enforced. To merely encourage entities doing business in the United States to disclose slave labor in their supply chains is inadequate.
Various international agreements and conventions set the stage for how we should approach the problem of modern slavery. To date, few nations have taken a proactive approach. Interestingly, subnational governments are willing to take more significant steps toward ending this heinous crime, while national governments are satisfied with honor systems. It seems hypocritical that we tout the ills of modern slavery, allocate budgets to determine where it exists, acknowledge that it occurs and by whom, and then sit by and watch.
We have known for decades that modern slavery exists in various industries like cocoa production. Nationally, we have created a toolkit that includes laws, policies, and the ability to enforce them. What we have not done is provide the muscle needed to stop this crime. The laws aptly acknowledge the crime but they are void of enforceability mechanisms. The message to big business is that they are on the radar, then they can continue past practices of ignoring inhumane slavery and slave-like conditions in their supply chains, particularly as it relates to children, at their own peril. Disclosure laws such as those passed in other nations and the state of California, can send a signal that the United States is serious about modern slavery’s eradication.
Collectively viewing all of the laws, rules, and accords on modern slavery, slavery can be loosely defined as forcing a person to work, through threat or fraud for subsistence at best. It is absolute exploitation. Slavery is no longer about people owning people. The Thirteenth Amendment took care of that—or so we would like to believe. Modern slavery is not that different. It does not require the physical transportation of the forced workforce, and frequently the workforce is built out of the need to survive, particularly in conflict areas. As globalization spreads, there is a higher likelihood that goods will continue to be manufactured at a lesser cost due to cheaper labor and materials. And so, unless and until we hold businesses accountable, slavery in the global supply chain will remain hidden or overlooked.
The most glaring finding in the course of my research is that more is required of lawmakers, policymakers, and everyday citizens to continue engagement in eliminating this atrocity. Looking at inequalities across the spectrum, it is clear that playing fields are not level. There are many contributors to this uneven playing field of inequities including poverty through unemployment or inadequate compensation, social injustices and human rights violations, and conflict. The sources include religious, political, cultural issues, and greed manifested in corruption and bad governance. These factors drive bad business behaviors where industry demands cheap labor to meet supply requirements and, consequently, unskilled labor. Children often become that workforce. The question is whether the will to change things exists, or whether lip service will suffice.
It is well known that victims of forced labor are brought to the United States because there is a market for their services. Inadequate legislation coupled with inefficient enforcement of the laws provides an environment that permits the problem to persist. Victims of forced labor outside the United States are critical cogs in the wheel of overseas production. That cheap or unpaid labor permits multinationals to reap the most substantial profits possible. These slaves, especially children, are not benefiting from the increased revenues and, consequently, another generation of illiterate exploited persons is underway.
Due diligence, mandatory disclosures, greater enforcement, and meaningful sanctions are necessary. A state cannot singularly impact this issue. It must become a national priority. If multinationals are not mandated to take actions but rather only encouraged to be responsible, profits will likely carry the greater weight in corporate decision-making. The absence of meaningful enforcement can invite corporate irresponsibility.
It is time for the ostrich to raise its head from the sand. Each day new evidence points to the severity of this problem. The issue is not that the United States has not done anything for lack of trying, but more so, whether or not the government has the political will to move forward knowing that we are participating in the exacerbation of this ongoing horrendous crime. Unless and until the federal government takes a deliberate step, we will remain status quo. I have recommended that the United States simply build on its existing framework. The tools (i.e., the laws) are available but meaningful enforcement is absent. Bifurcating the approach to modern slavery would appear to be effective. There is no reason to undo the efforts to tackle sex, agricultural, and domestic servitude, the prevalent slavery form within the United States. Enforcement of the economic aspect (i.e., slavery within the American supply chain), however, should shift from a humanitarian-driven approach to a homeland security approach complete with appropriate laws, sanctions, and enforcement capabilities, as would be the case with other international financial crimes.

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