Forced Labor and Human Trafficking

Ideas and Issues

photoNew Orleans   At the Fair Grinds Dialogue , Stephanie Hepburn, co-author of Human Trafficking Around the World:  Hidden in Plain Sight, led us through the hall of horrors of forced labor and the little that is done about it around the world.  She and Rita Simon had amassed stories and studies from twenty-four countries to shed light on the estimated, but likely under-counted, 20.9 million victims of trafficking making for a fascinating, engaged, and profoundly depressing evening despite the good spirits of all involved.

            The first point Hepburn made was that despite the fact that when most people think about trafficking, their most vivid image stoked by movies and television, is sex trafficking, and as terrible as that is, it only represents 22% of what most count as trafficking, while forced labor counts for 78% of the almost 21 million victims.  The second point that was inescapable is that despite the fact that trafficking by definition implies movement, forced labor in Hepburn’s argument is defined by what she calls the “deprivation of freedom” or in other words the restriction of mobility, the loss of any ability to leave or flee the situation. 

            The examples are legion and certainly the caste system in India and bonded labor in that country is one of the more notorious, where literally generations of families are held in indentured servitude because of generations of debt, and there is Niger in Africa where slavery is still legal.  The predatory nature of debt though is common in many of the forced labor situations where aspiring immigrants have raised sums from family and friends seeking opportunity in North America or Europe or the Middle East, and instead find themselves working but in situations more akin to captivity with terrible living conditions and a cycle of increasing and inescapable debt with their documents and plane tickets held by their employers or, more accurately, captors. 

            In the United States such cases, when they finally emerge from “plain sight,” are often handled administratively through the Department of Labor as enforcement actions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, rather than as civil suits prosecuted by the Justice Department.  Hepburn cited some progress in recent reports by the State Department that looked not only at other countries challenges and progress in dealing with trafficking but internally at the US situations as well, which was no doubt gratifying partially because her initial interest had been provoked by the labor conditions in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

            Hepburn hopes that more transparency like this will educate prosecutors and judges to take trafficking more seriously because the conditions will be more visible.  She is encouraged by several groups, like Polaris Project, that have done good work.  She cited the Palermo Protocols as progress in forging a more common definition of trafficking that might encourage better enforcement country to country.

            As she answered questions, I could sense both anger and disappointment in the room.  People wanted a happier ending or to feel that somebody, somewhere was doing more about this issue and that it would all work out better, but they weren’t hearing it from Hepburn.  This was a work in the making.   In her book, she minced no words in the conclusion that we need to be more honest about trafficking and start calling a spade a spade and see it as simply “modern slavery.” 

There’s no sleeping easily with slavery once you come to grips with the fact that it is not a thing of past, but very much part of the present.