The injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking…must be called by its true name — modern slavery.
President Barack Obama
There was an audible gasp in the Clinton Global Initiative pressroom when President Obama uttered the word “slavery.” From that moment forward the President had everyone’s attention, and went on to announce his administration’s expanded commitment to fighting human trafficking.
Among these efforts are an executive order expressly prohibiting Federal contractors from engaging in specific trafficking activities, a partnership with anti-trafficking leader Humanity United, and inclusion of the United States in its own annual trafficking report. The President also called on Congress to renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and for businesses and nations to act as well. American Bar Association President Laurel Bellows praised the President, stating, “The president’s aggressive action is a meaningful victory for human rights that should rally policymakers and the public to fight the practice of modern day slavery where hundreds of thousands of victims are forced into labor or exploited for sex in the United States alone.”
As explained by the President, modern slavery is not only the kind of slavery most of us are familiar with, but is also comprised of people who go out looking for work, only to get trapped working for low wages and threatened if the attempt to leave, girls sold into prostitution, and children kidnapped and turned into child soldiers. The President went on to say that human trafficking is “barbaric,” “evil,” and “has no place in a civilized world.”
President Obama faces three major obstacles in his shared goal to end human trafficking: (1) U.S. corporate law generally states that corporations exist for the financial benefit of their shareholders. Using slave labor, while deplorable, benefits shareholders by reducing labor costs. Paying workers higher wages means lower profits for shareholders, and any company wishing to transition will find that it must either admit publicly that slave labor was used in producing some of its goods or explain away its decrease profits with euphemisms and hope that no shareholder decides to file suit for breach of fiduciary duty.
(2) Emerging countries are not likely to forget that the United States’ own economy was built on slave labor. The African slave trade not only benefitted Southern farmers, but also Northerners who engaged in the actual sale of slaves, and goods produced by slaves. The U.S. is essentially telling countries, “don’t do we what we did,” and some may ignore the efforts to end slavery, citing hypocrisy.
(3) The sheer magnitude of the problem. There are 20 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. However, the real indicator of the magnitude of human trafficking came not from this number, but from an offhanded question asked to Justin Dillon, CEO and Founder of Slavery Footprint.org by a reporter who was listening to our conversation after the President’s remarks. She asked, “How many of the clothes that you’re wearing right now were produced without slave labor?”
He responded, “None.”
However, Mr. Dillon and others expressed optimism that the President’s choice call out human trafficking as slavery will make it easier for both countries and corporations to spot it, admit it, and end it.
Dwayne Allen Thomas, ’13, is the Editor-in-Chief of The BLS Advocate