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State Dept. Report Spotlights Urgent Need to Fight Modern-Day Slavery

Chandra Bhatnagar,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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June 21, 2013

The State Department this week released its 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), documenting the worldwide problem of human trafficking and other forms of modern-day slavery. This year’s report highlighted the difficulty of identifying victims of this egregious practice. According to the report, “46,000 victims of trafficking were brought to light worldwide, compared to the 27 million that we know are enslaved.

In the United States, the identification of victims of labor trafficking remains a particularly difficult problem. As the report notes, in 2012, of the 4,746 convictions for trafficking offenses, only 518 were for labor trafficking. Of course, the actual number of victims is much higher, but in addition to the problems in victim identification, “workers fear seeking assistance because of blacklisting and other retaliation methods, including inciting fear of deportation.”

The U.S. could improve this situation through more effective monitoring and enforcement of existing anti-trafficking laws, policies and practices, and the introduction of new measures where they are needed.

The H-2B temporary worker program is the perfect example. As it stands now, the current temporary labor scheme encourages rather than deters labor trafficking. Flaws in the program allow employers to exploit and abuse foreign workers, and facilitate labor trafficking. A prominent example is the Signal case, a horrifying example of modern-day slavery, where the ACLU and co-counsel represent men from India who were trafficked into the U.S. through the H-2B program with dishonest assurances of becoming lawful permanent U.S. residents and then subjected to squalid living conditions, fraudulent payment practices, and threats of serious harm.

But there are ways to improve the current system, prevent labor trafficking and adequately protect workers. A first step would be to insure that in all temporary worker programs:

  • workers must have the ability to leave abusive U.S. employers and seek employment with other U.S. employers without having to leave the U.S. and return to their country of origin, a path to permanent residency and citizenship (with their families), robust governmental oversight of labor conditions, and enforcement mechanisms verifying that employers comply with the terms of the contract.
  • employers must bear the recruitment/visa processing/travel costs of workers.
  • the government must adopt a rigorous and streamlined process to deny visa applications of employers who have violated workers’ rights under prior contracts.

Our government can and should do more to combat labor trafficking and to assist victims. As Secretary of State Kerry announced when he introduced the 2013 TIP Report “[f]rom heads of state and justice ministers to police officers and labor inspectors, we have to be tough in order to at last end modern slavery once and for all.”

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