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Human Trafficking And Modern Slavery In The United States

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Many Americans believe that slavery in the United States ended in 1865 when the 13th amendment was adopted. Unfortunately, that is not true. Slavery and Human trafficking flourish in our modern age. According to Bales and Soodalter (2010) a U.S State Department study states that approximately 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked and enslaved in the United States each year. (p.24) Becoming a victim of slavery and human trafficking is an equal opportunity. A modern slave can be any race, nationality, age, or gender. However, slavery and human trafficking are not just American problems. According to Gillian Wylie (2016) The human trafficking industry is worth tens of billions of dollars yearly. Human trafficking, after drugs and weapons, is the largest form of organized, transnational crime.” (p. 2) The one characteristic all slavery victims share is that they are preyed upon when they are at their most vulnerable. Vulnerability comes in many forms, it can be financial, geographical, physical, emotional, social, mental, or all the above.

According to Bales and Soodalter (2010) more than double the amount of individuals are enslaved in our modern day than were abducted from Africa during the 350 years of the Atlantic slave trade. (p.22) Although slavery is not seen as a social and economic reality as it once was 240 hundred years ago. The foundation of America was built on slavery and the crime continues today, just quieter.

Bales and Soodalter (2010) go on to state that the exact number of slaves is unknown due to the extreme hidden nature of the crime. However, human trafficking and slavery in America generate millions upon millions each year preying on the most vulnerable individuals. Slaves and human trafficking victims in the United States can be found working as sex workers, domestic workers, agricultural workers, construction workers, restaurant workers, or factory workers. (p.25) Many Americans may even come across these enslaved individuals without even realizing the individual’s enslavement. Human trafficking and slavery are a horrible human rights violations and Americans need to become aware of these crimes in order to prevent them by finding strategies for preventing slavery and trafficking, for assisting victims, and for dealing with exploiters.

It is important to examine strategies that will help prevent and identify slavery and human trafficking. The most important strategy for prevention of slavery and trafficking is awareness. Americans need to understand the different types of slavery and the signs to identify possible victims.

According to Wylie (2016), the internationally agreed definition of human trafficking by the UN reads as followed: “‘Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs…The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth [above] shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth [above] have been used.” (P.3)

Modern slavery and human trafficking often begin in the same way — with a false promise. Victims are offered an opportunity of paid work and/or an education. Many victims agree to leave their homes in hope of sending money back to provide for their family. According to DeStefano (2007) Many victims provide the same story – there was a restaurant that needed waitresses or a family that needed a nanny. Once the victims arrive, they realize that they are enslaved. (p.3) Many foreign victims are charged a smuggling fee by their traffickers to come to the United States and then forced to work off that debt to obtain their freedom. Often these debts are inflated and impossible to work off. This debt binds the slave to the slaveholder. Many people wonder, but why don’t victims just run away once they realize they are enslaved? According to Bales & Soodalter (2010) “As the body is subjugated, in shock the psyche follows, leaving the victim without the will to resist.” (p.79) Trafficking victims are often subjected to horrible abuse such as beatings, gang rapes, and death threats. This fear and shock along with the unfamiliar surroundings cause victims to feel trapped. If they were to run, they would not even know where to go, and if they are immigrants, they also fear deportation if discovered.

Slavery can take many different forms; domestic slavery, agricultural slavery, and sex slavery, to name a few. They are all similar, yet they each have their own unique characteristics. Bales & Soodalter (2010) state that domestic slavery is unique among the other types of slavery because it is about saving money versus making money. (p. 34) Domestic slave holders keep slaves for their own benefit and not for a profit. Domestic slavery, like other versions of slavery, usually begins with a false promise. A family will invite an individual into their home on the premise of them working as a nanny, gardener, housekeeper, etc. and then take advantage of the situation. Many domestic workers come over legally, as well as illegally, and some are even American born and raised. Usually all are coerced into the home on the promise of good pay or education. The victims believe that taking this opportunity will benefit both themselves and their families. Once they have made it into the home, all opportunity fades away. Domestic slaves are often abused and enslaved without anyone outside the family noticing that something is wrong. Bales and Soodalter (2010) state that there is a high possibility that many Americans have seen enslaved individuals shopping grocery stores or babysitting children without even realizing what is going on. (p.35) Victims of domestic slavery are forced to work all day cooking, cleaning, and tending to the family. While they are not working, they are often beaten, raped, and abused. When the family is out victims are not allowed to relax, many are watched on surveillance and forced to wait outside, sometimes chained up. If someone is suspected of being enslaved, call the authorities.

Agricultural slavery differs from domestic slavery because it is all about making money by saving money on employment. Erin Heli (2012) writes “Horrific are the general living and working conditions of those trapped in agricultural slavery.” (p. 26) Agricultural slavery is so culturally systemic in the United States that most American’s do not even realize that they are consuming slave picked produce. Consider Immokalee, Florida, an unincorporated community located about forty minutes southeast of Southwest Florida International Airport established in the first part of the twentieth century. Bales and Soodalter (2010) describe Immokalee as “more a labor reserve than a town.” (p.54) Immokalee is a simple town. There are no flashy cars or high-end jewelry stores like you might find in nearby Naples. The people in Immokalee cannot afford to own cars. The community’s main purpose was for the growing, picking, packing, and shipping of oranges, tomatoes, and other crops. About 95% of the Immokalee workforce population is male and mostly all illegal immigrants. Most of these individuals, like the other forms of trafficking and slavery, find themselves coerced into the situation by the promise of work and the hopes of providing for their families back home.

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Many of these immigrants and had to rely on a “coyote” or smuggling guide to help them get across the border. When they arrive in Immokalee, all they find is backbreaking work, intense control, and the lowest possible wages. Many of the immigrants also owe the coyote a debt for assisting them across the border. This ever-growing debt and the extremely low wages make for an extremely vulnerable individual. The cost of living in Immokalee is also high with things like rent and food prices being dictated by the wealthy growers and slumlords. According to Heli (2012) Immokalee workers can work for over ten hours under the hot Florida sun with no breaks, and all they have to show for it is a single watermelon. No actual currency. (p. 25) This is financial abuse. The coyotes, growers, and slumlords know that they are actively benefiting from human trafficking and slavery, but most choose to turn a blind eye to the issue because there is money to be made from the free labor.

Heli (2012) states, “women are more likely to have other occupations if trafficked into Immokalee. For the most part, the women trafficked into Immokalee (and the United States in general) are victims of the forced commercial sex industry” (p.33) These women and children sold into sex slavery come from all corners of the world, some are American citizens and some are not. They arrive by plane, bus, car, truck, van, boat, and by foot. Some have papers, some do not. Once these woman and children are in enslaved, they are held captive using forms of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse as well drug-withholding. According to the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (2014) “Commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors encompass a range of crimes of a sexual nature committed against children and adolescents, including: recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing, obtaining, and/or maintaining (acts that constitute trafficking) a minor for the purpose of sexual exploitation; exploiting a minor through prostitution; exploiting a minor through survival sex (exchanging sex/sexual acts for money or something of value, such as shelter, food, or drugs); using a minor in pornography; exploiting a minor through sex tourism, mail order bride trade, and early marriage; and exploiting a minor by having her/him perform in sexual venues (e.g., peep shows or strip clubs)” (p. 7) Sex trafficking and slavery of women and children unfortunately has a great demand worldwide. Bales and Soodalter (2010) write “A girl or woman might belong to five, or maybe even ten pimps over the course of a few years; but how many men have had her in that time? For every twenty kids out there every night, there are maybe thousands of johns.” (p.85) Throughout the world, there seems to be an unspoken understanding between men that they have the right to purchase sex. This extends to regular men as well as men in power, regardless of the law. The idea of being a pimp has been glamourized in American culture. The movie Hustle & Flow starring Terrance Howard is the story of a pimp who has dreams of making it in the rap game. The movie features the academy award winning song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”. Hustle & Flow is just one example of American culture romanticizing pimps. The world views pimps and johns as “guys just being guys” and portrays paying for sex as a normal part of manhood.

According to Heli (2012) There are three main differences between traditional slavery and modern slavery. The first difference is that the slaves of today are hidden from the public and are heavily monitored by their exploiters. The second difference is that the use of coercion, force, and threats are the modern exploiters’ only ways of controlling their slaves. The third difference is that the modern slaves are expected to repay the costs associated with their enslavement. (p.29) These methods are all used in many different types of slavery and human trafficking. Domestic, agricultural, and sex slaves are hidden in the shadows of the American framework. Violence, drug addiction, rape, and financial status are all means for controlling modern day slaves. The slaves are tricked into coming here by being promised the American dream – a way to support themselves and their families. When they arrive in the U.S they are tied to their abuser financially while being geographically and socially isolated, and physically and mentally abused. These factors make it difficult to escape.

When it comes to assisting and supporting victims and survivors, authorities on the frontlines, such as police, emergency medical technicians, and 911 operators especially need to be aware of the signs of slavery and human trafficking. According to Bales and Soodalter (2010) “A few years ago, John Birbiglia, a local police detective, was called in by his boss and told, “You’re in charge of human trafficking,” even though his boss didn’t know of any cases and the detective had no awareness of the problem. Consequently, Birbiglia attended a series of training programs given by Long Island’s newly created Anti– Human Trafficking Task Force, and— electrified by what he had learned— decided to share it with his fellow officers. Frustrated while waiting for government training videos, he made his own— a rough, short tape that described what a trafficking case might look like— and showed it at roll call to the officers with whom he worked. Eventually his superior noticed the time and resources he was putting into the training and thought Birbiglia might be wasting time on it, since there weren’t any trafficking cases in their bailiwick anyway. But just a few days later, one of the policemen who had seen Birbiglia’s video received a call from the doughnut shop, reporting that a distraught, scantily clad Indonesian woman was attracting attention. Had he not been given a modicum of training in human trafficking, the officer might well have responded by arresting the woman or returning her to her abusers. Instead, recognizing a possible trafficking case, he called Birbiglia, who had made and shown him the tape, and the woman was rescued. As the result of a little training, two women were freed. Ideally, this is the way it is supposed to happen.” (P.46)

Here are a few basic questions if an individual is suspected of being enslaved: Is this person unable to move about freely? Are they being watched or followed? Does this person seem scared to speak in the presence of others? Does this person look to be of school age, but is regularly seen working during school hours? Are there any signs of abuse? — bruises, cuts, bandages, limping? Does the person seem disoriented, confused, malnourished, or frightened? If so, contact authorities or call the Human Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline: 1– 888– 373– 7888 (it is a free call).

The authorities not only need to assist the victims, they must also come up with strategies for addressing exploiters, slave masters and traffickers. Bales and Soodalter (2010) write about “john school” – an intervention program designed to reduce the demand for commercial sex and human trafficking by educating men on the negative consequences of prostitution. John school started in San Francisco and was designed for first-time offenders who were arrested for soliciting prostitutes. Often the men are given the choice of paying a fee, being prosecuted, or attending a one-day john school. (p.85) Other than john school, the police do not often pursue johns. If they catch a john in the act, they will often let him go. But the police will often arrest the woman or child he was abusing. Morally this make no sense.

Some believe that if slavery is not seen then it does not exist. However, one does not have to be aware of slavery to benefit from it. The products of slavery include, but are not limited to, fish, cotton, coffee, fruit, and steel. According to Bales and Soodalter (2010) “Criminals around the world look for ways to cut costs and increase profits, and what better way to cut labor costs, especially in labor-intensive industries, than slavery?” (p.125) This makes supporting slavery difficult to avoid for the common person. However, according to Bales and Soodalter (2010) slave-made products represent only a small proportion of all imported and American made goods. Although these slave-made products still exist, today only a small fraction of slavery taints commodities and products, making them even more difficult to identify and remove. (p.130)

Finding a way out of this slavery mess for American companies and consumers will not be easy. Conscious decisions individuals make each day can help prevent and eliminate slavery and human trafficking in the United States and all over the world. If an individual appears to be in need, do not look the other way, offer help. Be conscious of where you shop and what products you buy. Be aware of the glamorization of sex trafficking in American culture. All these little things add up to big things.


  1. Bales, K., & Soodalter, R. (2010). The slave next door : Human trafficking and slavery in america today. ProQuest Ebook Central
  2. DeStefano, A. M., & DeStefano, A. (2007). The war on human trafficking : U. s. policy assessed. ProQuest Ebook Central
  3. Heil, E. C. (2012). Sex slaves and serfs : The dynamics of human trafficking in a small florida town. ProQuest Ebook Central
  4. Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (2014). Confronting commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the united states : A guide for providers of victim and support services. ProQuest Ebook Central
  5. Wylie, G. (2016). The international politics of human trafficking. ProQuest Ebook Central

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