Modern-day Slavery: The Exacerbation Since 1863

Julie Lee

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Nearly two decades ago, following one of the bloodiest war in American history, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. To the eyes of many Americans, slavery may appear to be merely a dark history – something in the past. But, in reality, slavery isn’t over. According to the University of California, there are twice as many people enslaved in the world as there were in the 350 years of transatlantic slave trade. Millions of people are being refused the rights and the integrity humans are inherently entitled to, and are essentially being treated as disposable things. The most shocking truth of all is that many people are blind to this global-wide humanitarian crisis. While we complain about not getting enough sleep from homework, there are people out there who cannot sleep due to compulsory labor. While we say we’re starving for not having our afternoon snack, there are people out there who survive on a piece of bread for days.
Contemporary slavery stretches across the globe, and is affecting millions, both visible and hidden, today. Because forced labor is constantly secreted, there isn’t a precise data on exactly how many people are enslaved today. While the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated about 21 million enslaved today, Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy recently released data projecting more than 29 million. The discrepancy results from the extent of the term “slavery” reaches. Some may propound that only forced labor fits into the category of slavery as that was how it was defined in the past. However, in accordance to Bales, who argued that modern slavery is “the complete control of a person of a person, for economic exploitation, by violence, or the threat of violence,” I agree that contemporary slavery is an umbrella term that reaches broad ranges of inhumane actions.
Slavery at Sea:
For years, United States has been the consumer of fish exports from Thai, mostly used to make pet food. Only in the past year, Thailand has shipped about 28 million pounds of seafood-based cat and dog food, thriving Thai’s sea industry. Due to the discrepancy between incoming demand and insufficient workers, migrants from Cambodia and Myanmar have been forced into labor through trafficking and other violent means. While some of these migrants were tricked into by traffickers who promised a stable source of pay, others were drugged or even kidnapped through mere violence.
As victims of commercial fishing, Cambodian migrants are forced to work 18 to 20 hours a day, regardless of the weather conditions. They suffer from nauseating hygiene, unjustified violence, and no hope of a better future. The migrants’ hands and feet are never healed, stomachs always empty, and ears deafened from the constant cries and screams. Ship captains are willing to trade these workers without a second- thought, not one of their lives considered valuable.
The irony is, these sea slaves’ lives in the lawless ocean is all for the catch that eventually becomes pet food. The whole idea of modern slavery translating into animal food is distressing as it insinuates the worth of humans as being even less than pets. (Just take a second and think: this humanitarian wrongdoing is triggered by the need for seafood-based cat food.) What is even more troubling however, is that the blood, sweat, and tears of these migrants are not translating into a better lives for the Cambodian migrants themselves, but for cold cash from America to the Thai economy. With limited monitoring, untraceable seafood, and the vast size of the ocean, it’s highly probable for thousands of more unaccounted forced laborers out there in the sea today.
Uzbek Cotton Harvest: In Uzbekistan, the government have been drafting about a million people every fall season to abandon their jobs and pick cotton without pay. According to Steve Swerdlow, who has been researching Central Asia with Human Rights Watch, “millions of its citizens pick cotton in abusive conditions, exposed to pesticides, without portable water, with inadequate shelter, for which they receive little or no pay.” Considering that Uzbekistan’s population is about 30 million people, 1/30th of Uzbek alone is being subjected to obligatory toil for economic exploitation. Though Uzbek’s cotton picking may not be as vehement as other contemporary slavery around the world, it’s undoubtedly an example of forced labor, a mode of oppression. Though there isn’t apparent violence per say, cotton picking in Uzbekistan is directly influenced with these people’s livelihoods. By refusing to “volunteer,” people can be denied promotion, fired, or even arrested. Similarly, employers suffer with inadequate staff as withholding their employees is a subject to criminal prosecution.
Unlike other countries who deal with forced labor, Uzbek government itself is actually the “trafficker-in-chief.” Thus, they utilize Uzbek’s police and high-position officers to essentially threaten its people into picking cotton without pay – or “volunteering.” The Uzbek government describes this “volunteering” as a patriotic service that all loyal citizens of Uzbekistan should be willingly participating. However, in reality, most do so in order to avoid retributions. Some, even hire a substitute, mostly low-class laborers or homeless, to fill in for their compulsory duty. Because the government randomly chooses millions to work on the cotton fields, Uzbek’s general societal order often is in chaos during cotton season. There isn’t enough doctors to treat its patients, enough teachers for the students, and not even enough cooks for the restaurants. However, the economy still remains afloat due to the cotton production, which pushes the government to continue compelling its people to pick cotton.
In order to eliminate forced labor within Uzbekistan, the “Cotton Campaign” began. This campaign, made up of numerous organizations to end forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, demands that the Uzbek government end child labor, cease to coerce its citizens to work in cotton fields, and allow civil society to monitor the cotton harvest. The Uzbek government agreed to stop child labor, but in turn, is drafting more adults to pick cotton each year. Additionally, the government is making it mandatory for people to sign a commitment to perform agricultural work or get fired. A document that the Uzbek-German Forum, a human rights organization within the campaign, released read, “I (name) commit to actively participate in public and agricultural work. In case of failure to do so, I agree to be dismissed.” In other words, the Uzbek government is taking these “voluntarily-written” pledges to falsely evidence their people’s willingness to participate in the nation’s agricultural growth. Hence, nothing has realistically changed from before.
Sex-Trafficking in America:
A key aspect that characterizes slavery is the selling and buying of people and complete control over them. In that sense, sex-trafficking is one of the most evident example of slavery that’s occurring today. When talking about sex-trafficking, most people think of smugglers from overseas. However, the actuality is that tens of thousands of juveniles being subjected to sex-trafficking are from traffickers in America. The persistent and mounting problem of sex trafficking in America gets insufficient attention from the press who focus on issues from faraway places. Thus, people continue to only associate sex trafficking with events overseas. Subsequently, arguing that slavery in America is something utterly in the past is completely erroneous.
According to a 2014 study by the Urban Institute, some traffickers in Atlanta make more than $32,000 a week. This data roughly demonstrates how many teenagers, both girls and boys, may be subjects to modern-day slavery today. Tina Frundt, who was a subject to sex trafficking in America, said that traffickers “…prey on young women and girls finding their weakness and then exploiting it. It’s easier to manipulate children, and by the time children become adults, they’re broken down and dependent.” Subjected to manipulation and lies, these young teenagers are slaves, used to bring in money for their owners and sold if proven not effective. Though not apparent and never under scrutinization, sex trafficking in America most definitely exists, and is a prime example for displaying how slavery still exists up until today. Modern slavery is not just a subject to other faraway nations, but also for the very nation where people claim slavery is officially abolished.
In conjunction with the Radnorite’s theme of labor and my interest in humanitarian defilements, I started with looking for articles regarding forced labor. From the process, I noticed that unlike all of the other articles I read, J.J. Gould, an editor of The Atlantic, described these appalling and inhumane situations not as coerced labor, but as slavery. This was at first hard to grasp, but the more I thought about it, made sense. Because of history, slavery has become a word that many people have grown uncomfortable to use. However, humanitarian crises such as human trafficking and forced labor are all essentially euphemisms of what dwindles down to slavery. Though it’s now universally illegal, slavery bluntly still exists global-wide, and has expanded to immensurable degree since the Emancipation Proclamation was declared in 1863. Why it’s more comfortable for people to say human trafficking or forced labor than slavery, we’d never know. Nevertheless, it’s significant for people to recognize that the global- wide crises that are going on today are as equivalent or not even worse as the slavery that is alluded in the history textbooks as the “darkest moments of American history.”