One hundred and fifty years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves during the civil war, it’s astonishing that we still face the need to fight slavery. But the fact is that millions of men, women and children are subject to modern slavery each year, including in the United States, and human trafficking is the world’s second largest criminal enterprise, after drug trafficking.
Slavery today looks much different than it did 150 years ago. Illegal everywhere, it is more often underground and masked so well that it is difficult to recognize. But the reality is that construction workers, housekeepers, farm workers and others in low-paying industries are brought to the United States by labor brokers who promised a job, but enslaved them instead.
Traffickers put those individuals into debt bondage, seize travel documents, threaten retribution by law enforcement or immigration authorities, and promise violence against family members if they try to leave.
Sex traffickers also target the vulnerable, using violence, threats and other coercive means to keep victims involved in sex slavery. Sex trafficking can be found in most major U.S. metropolitan areas and along major interstates at truck stops, on city streets, or in escort services, strip clubs, fake massage businesses and other venues.
Hopefully, signing the reauthorization of the TVPA into law is just the first of many second term efforts by President Obama to assert U.S. leadership and establish his legacy as a leader in the fight to end modern slavery.
In September, President Obama pledged his commitment to renewing the TVPA during a highly public speech at the Clinton Global Initiative; some say it was the longest speech on slavery by a U.S. president since the Emancipation Proclamation. The president also announced an executive order to strengthen U.S. efforts to stop human trafficking in government contracting, pledged to provide relevant officials and agencies with training and guidance programs on human trafficking, and promised to expand resources and services for trafficking survivors.
The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) issued a report late last year that offered dozens of detailed recommendations the Administration should follow in order to ensure President Obama’s pledge is successfully realized. Key recommendations beyond passage of the TVPA include:
1. Develop a National Action Plan based on a “whole-of-government approach” that coordinates all available resources and tools instead of providing piecemeal solutions to human trafficking;
2. Back up the commitment to fighting human trafficking and modern-day slavery with an FY14 budget request that fully funds critical initiatives;
3. Implement the new Executive Order and related legislation by banning recruiting fees and ensuring that federal contractors do not otherwise inadvertently have slavery in their supply chains; and
4. Partner with willing countries to create innovative, focused and comprehensive approaches to combat human trafficking, forced labor, and other forms of modern-day slavery around the world.
Ending modern slavery will not come with one speech, one executive order, or one signed piece of legislation. It will come if all of us—citizens, civil society, governments, corporations, and the philanthropic community—make it the priority it must be. Then we will be on our way to making sure that each of us is afforded the human dignity we deserve, no matter where we were born or what circumstances we find ourselves in.
Abramowitz is vice president, Policy & Government Relations for Humanity United and director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST).