WASHINGTON — “[M]ore than 27,000,000 people around the world are forced to live as slaves.” Of this number, 54 percent are women and 26 percent are children under the age of 18. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, announced these grave statistics in a committee hearing on the state of modern slavery on Feb. 4, 2015.
The Committee invited five speakers to give their testimony: Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission, Shawna Bader-Blau of the Solidarity Center, James Kofi Annan of Challenging Heights, Shandra Woworuntu of Mentari, and David Abramowitz of Humanity United. Aside from being anti-slavery activists and victim advocates, Annan and Woworuntu are also survivors of slavery.
Senators from both major political parties participated in the hearing. Aside from Sen. Corker, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) were in attendance.
Consistently during the hearing, the speakers identified modern slavery as a crime of opportunity. Modern slave owners take advantage of lax law enforcement, inadequate infrastructure and political apathy to prey on the most vulnerable people in their society. In the case of Annan, slave owners exploited local illiteracy to peddle false rumors about their “business,” offering educational opportunities to the children they “employed.” In Woworuntu’s case, labor recruiters forced her into sexual slavery by stealing her passport and threatening her family in Indonesia even after she was freed. Under these horrendous conditions, slavery has been a low-risk business venture with a potentially large profit margin, according to Haugen.
In the words of Bader-Blau, slavery has promoted a “commodification of the poorest people on the planet.” Because slavery is a business, slavery is also bound to economic interests that complicate efforts to combat it. Countries have directly profited from de facto slavery. In her testimony, Bader-Blau identified the annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan in which the Uzbek government forces schoolchildren to pick the crop. Even more problematic is Qatar’s infamous practice of labor recruiters bringing in foreign workers, only to take their passports, trap them in debt and force them to build the facilities for 2022 World Cup.
In these cases and others, slavery is both a diplomatic issue and a symptom of the economic disparity between slave owners and their victims. Addressing slavery would create tension between America and Qatar, a “valuable partner” in maintaining “security in the Persian Gulf region.” Even if countries were to address slavery, Haugen and Baden-Blau posited that slave-holding countries and corporations would simply look for victims in other places. For example, if Qatar could not find slaves in one country, it would look for slaves in another. In the case of Uzbekistan, after facing international criticism for its slavery practices, the Uzbek government decided to use the parents of schoolchildren instead of the schoolchildren themselves. When economic inequality favors slave owners, reform is often cosmetic.
Despite the grim state of the situation, speakers were able to discuss vital strategies to continue the fight against slavery and show noticeable progress in the fight.
Aware of the challenges slavery pose, speakers urged a pragmatic approach. Haugen argued that countries could confront slavery without having to simultaneously end poverty, which itself is a monumental task and would thus overwhelm anti-slavery activists. The key, according to Haugen, is to disincentivize slavery by vetting police forces and courts that would vigorously enforce existing laws. Baden-Blau proposed reducing self-monitoring and increasing government scrutiny on corporate supply chains and labor recruiters. To address the diplomatic dimension of slavery, she also suggested increased funding for the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP).
As Bader-Blau’s proposals imply, the speakers constantly emphasized the importance of utilizing government resources and incorporating them in collaborations with private and philanthropic organizations. Aside from regulatory reforms, the speakers proposed avenues of social activism. Annan argued that government “must take the lead” on the fight against slavery and provide activists with the media resources to educate local communities. Similarly, Abramowitz advocated developing apps that would enable workers to participate in the effort to increase transparency in the workplace. Incorporating slavery survivors into the fight, Woworuntu urged the Committee to support H.R. 500, the Survivors of Human Trafficking Empowerment Act, a bill that would form a survivor-led council to review federal policy on human trafficking and slavery.
Though the fight to end modern slavery is far from over, the struggle has yielded promising results. According to Haugen, constant political pressure on the Philippines has reduced child sex trafficking rates by 79 percent in the city of Cebu over four years. In 2013, Oxfam International filed an amicus brief in support of the Cardin-Lugar Amendment (passed in 2010) to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, an amendment that would increase transparency in extraction projects to reduce corruption in foreign governments and expose unethical business practices. In 2012, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13627, cracking down on federal contractors and subcontractors who would use slave labor.
“A lot of what looks like a lack of political will is [actually]despair,” noted Haugen. Action to end modern slavery had been slow because many thought the task would be impossible. However, slavery is “more stoppable than ever,” said Haugen, and activists around the world must take advantage of that fact.
As long as passionate leaders continue the fight, the promise remains that victory will not have to be only moral.
– Dean Delasalas