Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part II

Freedom Center Voices
January 25, 2021

Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part II

“In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”

Matthew Desmond, 1619 Project

The above quote crystalizes the idea that, while racial slavery was abolished in the 19th century, many aspects of that system continue to shape our economy if not also persist under different names. In this second blog post for Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I emphasize the importance of explicitly connecting the past and present when it comes to worker’s rights and the persistence of unfree labor.

Why does this connection matter? When human trafficking is treated as a new (and distinctly different) problem from historical slavery, we can lose touch with how the demise of slavery continues to shape economic and social relations. As a result, we move further away from reckoning with the living legacies of slavery as central to contemporary social justice struggles. The reality is we are still very much living in a world shaped by the African slave trade and European colonialism.

While much has changed since the 16th and even the 19th centuries, there continues to be an enduring and evolving reliance on unfree and low-wage labor. This is particularly obvious in the legacy industries of plantation slavery like the agricultural sector. In the U.S., this reliance started in the slave-based economies of the past and transformed as the institution of chattel slavery was formally abolished. While it became illegal to trade and own people, it was not illegal to expect that certain forms of labor be done for very little pay and under a certain degree of coercion. For example, Southern white land-owners in particular did not want to give up the economic benefits of unfree labor, although industry in the north also was dependent on repressed commodity prices made possible by that same labor. The challenge was how to rebrand unfree labor as something other than slavery. Consequently, new categories of labor and labor contracts emerged in order to feed the demand for unfree and low-wage labor. It is crucial we remember that the continued under-valuing and de-valuing of the racialized labor once performed by Black slaves is a legacy of African slavery.

New Systems, Similar Results

An example of a new labor category was the convict lease system used by local governments, white farmers and corporations. The system essentially replicated a slave labor force by using so-called Black Codes (in effect anti-Black codes) to incriminate newly freed African Americans for anything from walking on the “wrong” side of the train tracks to vagrancy and unemployment. Many are familiar with the impact of the Black Codes on the ongoing criminalization of Black life in America, especially in regard to policing and sentencing.

When we consider how anti-Black racism has contributed to the over-incarceration of African Americans in the U.S. prison system, it is not hard to see how a form of convict leasing still operates today. Prison labor is a multi-billion dollar industry, and while different from the convict leasing system in important ways, it is still the one loop-hole in the 13th Amendment that technically allows for slave labor. Incarcerated workers can receive important training and job skills, but they are one of the most vulnerable and exploitable work forces in our system. They are asked to fight fires, make PPE during a pandemic, and recycle waste yet are frequently unable to set the terms of their labor contracts. Furthermore, the impact of incarceration on someone’s prospects for work once they are released is still highly detrimental, from wage decreases to outright refusal to be hired. Some businesses and municipalities are “banning the box” as a way to advance the rights of formerly incarcerated people.

Convict Leasing of Children, 1903, Library of Congress, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, another dimension of that legacy is the ongoing racialization (and criminalization) of select laborers including non-white and migrant workers. U.S. immigration law has a long history of racism and abuse that is relevant to understanding the enduring legacies of slavery here and globally. While systems of migrant labor contracts existed before slavery was outlawed, our dependance on migrant and immigrant labor significantly deepened after emancipation.

Along with increased demand for cheap labor, there were shifting rationalizations for why certain ethnic groups were “better” able to perform certain jobs. These rationalizations were used to validate migrant labor contract systems (such as the Bracero program) which also gave legitimacy to repressing wages. It was harder to reduce the wages of white farmworkers than non-white and non-U.S. citizen workers. Thus, it benefited the farm owners and corporations to have low-wage migrant laborers. At the same time, migrant and immigrant workers were subject to virulent racist backlash both in their local communities and from the federal government. The Chinese Exclusion Act is an early example of that backlash and its impact is still evident today with examples of anti-Asian racism. Another example is the criminalization of immigrants, migrants and refugees from Central and Latin America and Mexico.

The struggle for farmworker’s rights has a long and vibrant history in the United States that intersects with other civil rights movements, including Black freedom struggles and Indigenous rights movements. While recent attention to human trafficking has increased awareness of the essential yet often vulnerable labor of farmworkers, it is important to contextualize these more recent anti-trafficking efforts in this broader history because migrant farmworker activism is and has been the primary engine behind advancing worker’s rights in the agricultural sector. From the coalition of Mexican and Filipino American workers who led a nation-wide strike of grape growers in Delano, California in 1965 and birthed the modern farmworker movement, to the recent Fair Food boycott of fast food chains who refuse to ensure migrant farmworker rights on tomato farms, farmworker-led organizations are essential to abolishing unfree labor. This context also is important because as attention has grown in the U.S  for what is called “domestic trafficking” (a term used to describe sex trafficking of U.S. citizens and legal residents) and cast as “modern day slavery” “in our own backyard” attention has turned away from an injustice that has long been in our own backyards – the exploitation of migrant and immigrant labor.

Source: Coalition for Immokalee Workers

It is vitally important that anti-trafficking efforts recognize the connections between unfree labor and the history of slave economies and racist immigration laws. When human trafficking is treated as a contemporary aberration rather than as intertwined in the legacies and endurance of old systems, then efforts to advance human rights may in fact undermine them. As we learned from Silvia Perez and Uriel Zelaya-Perez of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers during our webinar on January 22, human trafficking and slave-like conditions exist on a spectrum of labor exploitation including wage theft and gender-based violence. We must address the entire spectrum in order to create a more just and equitable food system and one that does not operate in the long shadow of African slavery. This is relevant more than ever as we depend on farmworkers as essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. They risk their lives in order to ensure food stays on our tables. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers as well as the Ohio-based Justice for Migrant Women have COVID-relief campaigns for farmworkers. Supporting farmworker-led organizations is one of the most important ways to fight human trafficking.

Read Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part I

Dr. Jennifer Suchland (she/her) is an associate professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality and the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures and our 2020-2021 Scholar-in-Residence. Her research, teaching, and activism are focused on critical human rights, intersectional and transnational feminism, and the intersection of law and culture. She is an avid gardener, loves to cook, bike, and go hiking with her friends and family. You can find her work online and on Twitter @mightykale.

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