Sex Trafficking and Labor Exploitation
By Channing Spencer
As a society, we tend to deny the existence of modern-day slavery and claim that slavery was abolished roughly 150 years ago. It is, therefore, important to acknowledge that slavery does exist in the world today and differentiate between historical slavery and modern-day slavery. As defined by Tim McCarthy, the Director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and Perspective’s faculty advisor, a slave is “someone who is forced or coerced into working against their will without pay under the threat of violence.” Modern-day slavery is, essentially, the term used to refer to such immoral acts as child labor exploitation, sex trafficking, and other attempts to subjugate individuals to perform tasks against their will. There are various estimates of the number of modern-day slaves, ranging from 12 to 27 million. Regardless of the exact number, it is undeniable that modern-day slavery is an issue that affects millions of people.
What is most shocking is that many people have either never heard of modern-day slavery, or do not know what it means. Even when we do hear about modern-day slavery, it is not referred to as such. There have been countless media reports of child labor exploitation, sweat shop workers, and sex trafficking. Often times, the cases that are most memorable are the sensationalized accounts of sex trafficking stings from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. In many ways, the media portrays modern-day slavery as a foreign issue, allowing us to ignore the existence of slavery in our midst. Though the media should be lauded for covering this obscure issue, we must recognize that slavery is as much a domestic issue as it is an international one.
As of March 15, 2010, a Louisiana man was arrested for trafficking two teenage girls to be used as prostitutes. And still, society continues to ignore this issue. According to McCarthy, there is a psychological barrier to acknowledging the existence of modern-day slavery. It seems conceptually impossible for there to be slaves, anywhere, let alone in the United States, a nation which prides itself on its unwavering defense of human rights and individual liberties. To acknowledge the existence of slavery would require Americans to admit failure—a failure to uphold certain democratic values. Moreover, our notion of slavery is so deeply embedded in a historical, racialized context that we fail to realize that the slavery of today does not look like the slavery of the past.
Today, it is almost universally accepted that slavery is an inherent moral wrong. There are minimum wage laws that vary from country to country, international laws against issues like sex trafficking, and transnational networks which serve as watchdogs for human rights. The question then becomes, why is modern-day slavery so prevalent?
The answer is not surprising: money. As McCarthy notes, it does not take an economist to know that slavery is a lucrative business. Sex trafficking and labor exploitation are simply means through which “profits and privileges are built on the backs of human beings.” Let’s face it: capitalism is, by nature, exploitive and can operate with scant regard to principles because there is a “broad consensus that the logic of capitalism is untouchable.” In many ways, capitalism is deeply implicated in slavery because it perpetuates an ambitious acquisition of wealth that often motivates the cheap utilization of slave labor. This is not to assert that modern-day slavery and global capitalism are synonymous or that capitalism is responsible for the evils of sex trafficking and labor exploitation. Likewise, to allege that capitalism is the sole cause of modern-day slavery would be to deny the existence of slavery in non-capitalist societies. Blame does not lie solely with corporations, but mostly with the individuals within the capitalist system whose blind consumerism leads them to ignore the fact that their consumption of goods like chocolate, which often contains cocoa produced by exploited child workers, provides tacit approval to the existence modern-day slavery.
The greatest irony surrounding this issue is that in the nineteenth century, there were no laws banning slavery in much of the United States but there was a substantial movement calling for its abolition. Today, according to McCarthy, we have the laws but no broad, powerful movement. Yes, there are people like Kevin Bales, the president of the Free the Slaves movement, but there must be more academic and political discourse on this topic. There needs to be a coordinated effort to engage the public, like that of the key figures of the historical anti-slavery movement.
Considering this need, the students and faculty at institutions like Harvard, which are standard-bearers of progress, have an obligation to actively engage the public on this issue. Fortunately, Harvard has a student group called Harvard College Free the Slaves (HCFTS). Founded by senior Kelli Okuji, the group is committed to raising awareness about modern-day slavery and human rights abuses. HCFTS, which is advised by Tim McCarthy and which consults with a number of experts in the field of modern-day slavery, has researched and designed a curriculum dedicated to issues of human rights. McCarthy strongly believes that this group’s efforts are a remarkable and unprecedented move towards calling attention to this major human rights issue. This group of students has identified a void in the undergraduate curriculum and has devised a way to fill it by setting a precedent in elevating the level of academic and, ultimately, political discourse surrounding sex trafficking and labor exploitation.
Unfortunately, the United States prides itself on occupying the role of the arbitrator of human rights violations, which has created an artificial distinction between the United States and the world in the realm of human rights abuses. At the Carr Center, McCarthy and his colleagues are challenging the misconception that slavery is strictly an international issue. In fact, Lou de Baca, who has been dubbed the “anti-slavery czar” of the Obama administration, has announced that for the first time, the United States will include itself in the annual TIP (trafficking in persons) report, which assesses the prevalence of slavery in various nations around the globe. This is a significant step towards the United States realizing that it, too, should be evaluated on its treatment of human rights, and that modern-day slavery is not just a foreign issue endemic to societies we view as unconscionable. Despite this major political step, it is also important to increase the public’s awareness to prevent a lag between the political and social movements. A continued denial of the existence of modern-day slavery is an act of hypocrisy, in which we placate our moral principles and avoid guilt by turning a blind eye to the evils of slavery in our own society.