Blog of Rights

Human Trafficking Is Modern-Day Slavery

By Suzanne Ito, ACLU at 6:09pm

Today is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement today:

The scourge of modern slavery, including human trafficking, continues to tear at our common humanity and to rip the social fabric of communities around the world.

The international community must redouble its efforts to combat modern slavery and human trafficking by fully implementing existing trafficking laws and prosecuting its perpetrators.

We couldn't agree more, which is why the ACLU is battling human trafficking in the United States on a few different fronts.

The ACLU Women's Rights Project (WRP) is fighting the abuse of domestic workers trafficked to this country by foreign diplomats. These workers — most often women from poor countries — are brought to the U.S. believing they'll have good jobs with benefits and the protection of U.S. laws. Instead, they're often held in slavelike conditions. This situation is made worse by the fact that current U.S. law grants foreign diplomats immunity from civil actions and criminal prosecution. As a result, diplomats have a free pass to mistreat domestic workers deliberately and without penalty. The ACLU is working to make sure that diplomats and their sending countries can be held accountable for human trafficking.

In 2007, WRP petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of five domestic workers. The petition asks the IACHR to hold the United States responsible for its neglect and failure to protect domestic workers employed by diplomats from human rights abuses and to ensure that these workers can seek meaningful redress for their rights. One of the women in the petition, Raziah Begum of Bangladesh, was forced to work 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., seven days a week without a single day off, for employers who worked for the Bangladesh mission. Her employers paid her $29 per month — approximately six cents per hour.

WRP also recently submitted an amicus brief on behalf of Vishranthamma Swarna, a domestic worker employed by a former Kuwaiti diplomat. The diplomat and his wife subjected Swarna to involuntary servitude and torture. The Women's Rights Project also joined a coalition of other groups to advocate for the publication of a State Department pamphlet that informs domestic workers coming into the U.S. of their rights.

The ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and HIV/AIDS Project is litigating a case against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS has awarded as much as $3.5 million to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The USCCB, in turn, gives grants to organizations to assist trafficking victims. But the bishops parse out the grants according to their religious beliefs, thereby denying abortion referrals and contraceptive services to victims who need such care. This means federal funds are being used to promote the USCCB's religious agenda, a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause. We just got a good ruling on this case Monday, so this case will proceed against HHS.

Finally, the ACLU's Human Rights Program is co-litigating a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of over 500 guestworkers trafficked from India to work in shipyards in Mississippi and Texas. The men came to the U.S. with assurances of becoming lawful permanent residents. But instead, they were subjected to squalid living conditions, fraudulent payment practices and threats of serious harm upon their arrival. Under the U.S. guestworker program, foreign guestworkers (or temporary workers) are left at the mercy of employers who can exploit, isolate and abuse them. Guestworkers are frequent victims of trafficking often arriving in the U.S. deep in debt after paying exorbitant amounts of money to recruiters who promise them job opportunities. With inadequate governmental oversight of labor abuses in the guestworker program, it is only after they arrive in the United States that workers discover that they have no way to escape an abusive situation because, under the terms of the guestworker program, they are unable to lawfully transfer their visas from one employer to another. (The ACLU is co-counsel with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Louisiana Justice Institute, the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice and Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP. This litigation arose out of a broader organizing campaign spearheaded by the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice.)

No matter where you fall on the immigrant worker issue, most people would agree that all workers — no matter where they're from — shouldn't be abused or cheated, and should be paid the promised wage for their labor. And they shouldn't be subjected to someone else's religious beliefs to get the services they desperately need when they're abused and mistreated.

The Obama administration has asserted that it will fight to protect trafficking victims and fully implement laws such as the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. We'll do our best to hold them to that promise (PDF).

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