Around the world forced labour is alive and well. Our correspondent meets survivors and activists striving to break the chains once and for all.
Consider this: Just about every product you consume and every service you use is at least a tangential result of forced labour. Someone put his or her sweat into giving you something, and she or he did so not out of free will but because of fraud, coercion, threats or abduction.
Your clothes almost certainly came from a country where people labour for wages of less than $2 a day while enduring threats, beatings and hazardous working conditions. Your food — whether eaten at a restaurant, handed to you by a roadside vendor or purchased at a grocery store —landed on your plate thanks in part to farm workers who were victims of human trafficking. The domestic worker who cleans your home or watches your children may have been a teacher in the Philippines before being lured here by a bogus recruitment agency.
The International Labor Organization, which tries to police the global agreements banning human trafficking, estimates that for every 1,000 people in the world, 5.4 are victims of modern slavery: 16 million people in the private sector; 4.8 million (mostly women) who are victims of forced sexual exploitation; 4 million in state forced labor such as prisons; and 15 million — virtually all of them women — trapped in forced marriages, which we don’t usually think of as slavery.
In fact, modern-day slavery bears little resemblance to the familiar depictions of malnourished people in chains. Threats are mostly subtler than physical violence: If the victims don’t comply, the traffickers can get them deported or make veiled threats against their families, which is especially effective with workers who have little contact with their loved ones. Traffickers can fill out all the proper immigration forms but mask the true destination of workers, knowing that enforcement is scattershot and the penalties minimal — mostly falling on the workers themselves. The forced labourers, who often speak little if any English, have scant knowledge of workplace laws, leading to stolen wages, exhausting work hours and arduous accommodations. And it’s likely worse than current statistics would have you believe. According to Polaris, an international antislavery advocacy group, “the individuals whose cases were reported likely represent only a very small fraction of the number of actual victims.”
If we want to eradicate slavery once and for all, we’d better start with a good hard look at the masks it wears.
Jose Rodriguez heard from a friend about a job working state fairs in the eastern United States. Eager to make more than his meagre earnings in Mexico, he leapt at the opportunity. “The whole point of coming to the U.S. is that the little money you make here seems to be 10 times more than what you can make in Mexico,” he tells me. So one day in 2010, the then 20-year-old left his home in the state of Veracruz, Mexico to join up with four other men on a daylong bus trip to a Texas border crossing. At the border-control post, a lawyer met the men and assisted their processing under the H-2B visa program, which covers nonagricultural temporary work. The next day, the five men flew to LaGuardia Airport in New York, where they were hustled into a van and driven to a state fair in New Jersey.
At the fair, Rodriguez would set up tents, lights and grills and do food prep. He often worked 12 hours a day, with no breaks except to run to the bathroom. It wasn’t till he had made it through the first fair that he learned he would be making $400 for the week. “Because I didn’t know English, I didn’t know my rights at all,” he says.
But working so hard for so little was only the beginning. The men, 10 in all, lived in a single-bedroom mobile home. They slept on small beds, one of which Rodriguez had to share with a friend — “family style,” he calls it. They had no heat, no food, no working toilets or even running water. Electricity was supplied by a gas-powered generator.
When Rodriguez’s last fair job finished, the trafficker hooked up the mobile home to a truck and drove it to Astoria, New York, where he parked the vehicle in a locked car wash. Then he left. The men were stranded without food or water and with no idea what would happen next. Eventually they managed to pool a few dollars, slip under the fence and buy some coffee and cookies. The activity raised suspicions, and thanks to the police and a nonprofit organisation that assists immigrants, the men were relocated to a nearby refugee hotel. When the trafficker arrived back at the car wash, he was arrested and forced to pay the men a part of the money they were owed. Rodriguez was able to get a work permit to stay in the country in exchange for agreeing to testify, two years later, at the trial of the trafficker. He is now a citizen.
Although slavery has existed for as long as people have congregated into organised societies, today it’s a $150 billion worldwide business. The problem is metastasising at a scale we’ve never encountered before due to three major factors: global commerce, war and the planetary climate crisis.
First and foremost, forced labour is an integral part of the machinery of the global economy. Most industries profit less from innovation than they do from a dogged reliance on lower labour costs. To that end, labour brokers feed an economic supply chain across continents, creating a tangle of relationships that stretches from the factory floor to the executive suite — all to create a sheen of plausible deniability about the conditions under which human beings work for pennies. Meanwhile, deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement impose austerity on small producers who cannot compete against better-equipped and relentlessly cost-cutting companies, turning farmers into for-hire labourers. This system hums along unchallenged largely because unions, especially in the U.S., have been cut down in size and power.
Second, wars envelop vast areas of the globe and sometimes last for decades. Of the unprecedented 68.5 million people displaced from their homes by late 2017, 25.4 million are refugees who have fled because of government-sponsored armed conflict. The brutal civil war in Syria has generated an astonishing 5.6 million refugees, most of whom have fled the Assad regime’s relentless conventional and chemical warfare attacks on civilians living in rebel-affiliated areas.
And then there’s climate change. Human rapacity and political dysfunction have intensified droughts and famines, bankrupting millions of already desperate people, especially in Africa, and forcing them off their small plots of farmland or from villages where wells have dried up and crops have withered. All those people end up desperately trying to scratch out an existence, making them prime targets for human traffickers, who are increasingly part of sophisticated organized-crime groups.
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