Modern Slavery

Modern Slavery speeding up U.S.'s trip down the trail of decline

In his November 3rd speech, Ayatollah Khamenei once again stressed that the decline and collapse of the US’s established order is inevitable and this is a topic that analysts and authors inside the United States admit to. One of the many indicators of the US decline and collapse is the significant increase of U.S. regime’s racist behavior towards its own people as well as other nations. This is irrespective of which administration takes the Oval Office; rather this is a structural approach taken by both Democratic and Republican governments. This article reviews abusing the people of color and exploiting them as cheap labor force as well as the expansion of modern slavery in the United States.

The prison industrial complex is a basis for the conservative neo-liberal policies developing in the age of globalization since the early 1970s. These policies have increased the exclusion of Black and Latino communities in the United States and they have a big share of responsibility for the dire treatment of minorities in this country. The United States holds the unprecedented record number of prisoners in the entire history of mankind; such a record does not exist anywhere else in today’s world. The United States of America comprises only five percent of the world population but surprisingly has 25% of the world prison population [1]. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of prisoners in the US was 2,200,000 people [2]. While these numbers show state and federal prison population, it does not include the 750,000 Americans in jails on a daily basis as well as an annual jail population that reaches 13 million [3]. The statistics show a 500% increase in US prison population while the total population of America has only increased by 45 percent. Behind the scenes of the US prison industrial complex you can find:

“the political and economic interests of America’s elite: laws; zealous prosecutors; the legislative, judicial, and executive branches at the local, state, and federal levels; the media; transnational corporations; schools; the church; the police; virtually every American institution; and the ideologies and rhetoric of racism, fear, and crime and punishment all work together to maintain the world’s largest prison system.”[4]

The racialized war on drugs, the harsh laws and mandatory sentences in a conservative era, economic restructuring, globalization, and the prison industrial complex are the factors responsible for this huge number of prisoners in the US. Julia Sudbury [1], a board member of the Prison Activist Resource Center and Chair of Ethnic Studies at Mills College, refers to the prison industrial complex in the U.S. as a “…symbiotic and profitable relationship between politicians [state and national], corporations [executives and shareholders], the media, and state correctional institutions [including correctional officers’ unions] that generates the racialized use of incarceration as a response to social problems rooted in the globalization of capital [5].”

One might argue that the huge population of imprisoned people is mainly because they are real criminals who deserve to be kept in prisons; that is not the case. The number of people behind bars continues to increase tremendously, while the crime rate has seen a downward trend. Despite the fact that violent crime has declined in the United States [6], the incarceration rate has tripled since 1980[7]. About 13 million people are brought to American jails in any given year. It is totally absurd to mention that more than six million people are under "correctional supervision" in the US. These statistics are surprising, since 1 in 50 Americans has experienced prison somewhere in their lifetime, either as inmates, or while on parole or probation. Currently, one out of every 100 Americans is being imprisoned [8].

This is not a paradox as it may seem. Prisons have long been a burden on the shoulders of any world government, because they must provide prisoners with essentials of food and a place for them to sleep during their time incarcerated; this translates as a cost with no financial return.

U.S. companies now offer an inhumane solution to the problem by signing a contract to manage these prisons and pay a considerable amount of money to the government for letting them have these prisons. The financial justification for managing a prison and paying for the living expenses of the prisoners becomes apparent when corporate executives realize that they can use the prisoners basically as slave labor, paying them as little as 25 cents per hour (or $20 per month) to do the same work that the average laborer makes the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which is the federally mandated minimum wage in the US [9]. In return, companies require the government to equip prisons with at least 1,000 beds and maintain a 90 percent occupancy rate in these privately run prisons for a period of 20 years [10].
Federal inmates in the UNICOR program sew uniforms for U.S. soldiers. UNICOR, a government-owned corporation, has an annual revenue of more than $600 million for manufacturing items with penal labor.

Twenty five cents an hour amounts to slavery! But who cares? The 13th amendment to US constitution legally mandated this form of slavery in 1865, stating:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Therefore that kind of slavery was made a totally legal issue in the United States.  It is legal, but not humane, because it has given rise to a trend of imprisoning innocent people. American courts are being lobbied to issue disproportionate rulings over small infractions; especially, when the convict is a black man. The US prison industry has caused people to be put behind the bars mostly for non-violent crimes, with long prison sentences for having very little quantities of illegal drugs [11].

U.S. laws are also biased to the detriment of black people. Laws rule that possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine or 3.5 ounces of heroin is punishable by five years of imprisonment without possibility of parole, while the sentence for possession of less than 2 ounces of rock-cocaine or crack is 10 years. In contrast, possession of the powdered form of cocaine, which is used mainly by white people, receives a shorter prison sentence--the possession of 17.5 ounces of cocaine powder entails 5 years in prison. In the land of the free, American Black males are 30% likely to be put in jail. This number is 16% for Latinos while for Whites it is only four percent. These numbers clearly show that the prison industrial complex specifically targets Black people [12].

Young Black males — mainly high school dropouts — are constantly setting new records. The incarceration rate for Black males who are between 25 to 29 years old is 13 percent, while this number is 2 percent for White people and 4 percent of the Hispanics in that age group. Half of all young Black males without a high school diploma who are active in the workforce are passing their lives working for American companies behind bars, while the other half is working from outside the bars. Meanwhile, according to statistics, young White males who do not have a high school diploma hold an incarceration rate of 1 in 10. This high incarceration rate among the black youth affects their employment prospects and tarnishes their likelihood for success in marriage and parenting, which might be helpful in closing the achievement gap. This situation means a growing chance for a Black male to return to prison and also increases the likelihood of his children to have the same prospect; this means more profit for the companies which use their labor in prison for almost nothing in return [13].

This data is of no concern to the companies who are lobbying to fill their private prisons with more unpaid workforce, and consequently lining their pockets. US prisons could have been a place that provides educational opportunities and job training, or prepares inmates for earning a living when their sentence is complete; unfortunately, the prison industrial complex exploits them so as to make products at more competitive prices.

The U.S. Exports Slavery across the World; but how?

Modern slavery is alive and thriving, thanks to US policies around the world [14]. The American style of slavery is not limited to the land boundaries of that nation, and has taken multiple forms. Many American and European companies work with industries that use child or adult slaves for their productions.  For example, the shrimp that U.S. citizens buy at Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco are produced by slaves in Thailand. You may say Thailand is to be blamed for slavery that takes place inside its borders, but you must also bear in mind which countries are financing the slavery. The increased demands from the US and Europe show how 300,000 people in the Thai fishing industry actually work for American and European retailers [15].

In this big business of slavery, children are great assets; they were found sewing clothing for Walmart, Hanes and other European companies [16]. Children are also found working in large scale at factories for various chocolate companies [17], including Hershey, Mars, Nestle, ADM Cocoa, Godiva, Fowler’s Chocolate and Kraft [18]. These companies are their child slave trend as we speak. Recently, the child slaves in Africa from industries that were sponsored by Apple and Microsoft, along with some other companies created a big controversy, for the support these companies are creating for child slavery in Congo [19]. The use of child labor has become so obvious that Nestle CEOs have admitted to the use of this practice in the company [20]. There are numerous other examples that an interested reader can find information on. This is how corporations outsource catastrophe and workers pay the price [21].

Enslaving people is not limited to American and European companies; their respective governments have also a great share in the slave labor. There are many reports pointing to human trafficking through military contracts, which was being performed in Iraq and Afghanistan [22]. The reports show how the US military has abused Third country nationals at their military bases, and exploited them for cheap labor [23].

The Multibillion-dollar Sex Trafficking Business

The sex trafficking industry is a multibillion dollar business that transports and enslaves hundreds of thousands women each year. Sex trafficking and sexual abuse is another form of slavery that existed in past and in today's world. The FBI announced in 2011 that there were 293,000 American children at risk of being sexually abused [24]. Forty percent of these cases involved prostitution of a child or child sexual exploitation [25]. These numbers are mainly about American citizens not foreign nationals; statistics show 83 percent of victims who became victim of this crime were American nationals [26].

According to associate professor of women’s issues and human trafficking Anchalee Panigabutra-Roberts, sex trafficking incidents are much greater than labor trafficking incidents in the U.S., 82% of victims of human trafficking in U.S. are related sex trafficking, while 21% are related to other forms of human trafficking [27]. This while Kimberly Kotrla points out to the substantial numbers of minors and American youth who have fallen victim to human trafficking in the United States every year. According to him there at least 100,000 thousand U.S. children, under the age of 18, who are victims of commercial sex, which is a part of the criminal act of human trafficking [28]. While these are formal numbers, experts contend on the fact these people are an invisible population and it is hard or impossible to gain their exact numbers.

Neoliberalism and globalization are contributors to modern-day slavery and human trafficking in persons [29]. According to Michael A. Peters, Emeritus Professor in Educational Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, neoliberalism, which is the dominant political philosophy of the Western world “involves a return to a primitive form of individualism: an individualism which is ‘competitive,’ ‘possessive,’ and construed often in terms of the doctrine of consumer sovereignty[30].”

Although it is believed that neoliberalism creates freedom, it has produced more of the “bad” freedom. As Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at CUNY David Harvey puts it:

“The fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property”[31].

Globalization is also considered as a tool, for more freedom, for rich people to exploit the poor. According to new studies by Oxfam, sixty-two people have the same amount of wealth as that held by half the world combined [32]. This huge, ongoing accumulation of wealth has caused unemployment, misery, and desperation among developing and underdeveloped nations. This inequality and unbalanced wealth accumulation causes some people from underdeveloped countries to be forced into migrating to a place, to work in the so-called free world, which sometimes lead them to become victims of modern slavery. There are several stories of slaves whose extreme poverty has led to their voluntary participation in slavery. It is not voluntary in the sense that an individual wants to participate in such a life, but because the individual has no other choice. Extreme poverty erases any opportunity for legitimate means of making money and leading a normal life. In most cases, such a poor quality of life leads to human trafficking, sex trafficking, and forced labor. This can be an endless cycle, which is impossible to break.


This is how the freedom of "the few" leads to exploitation of others in order to make economic gains, without serving or returning anything to the community for the greater good. That is how neoliberalism has betrayed the cause for which it is fighting. Professor of anthropology Aihwa Ong has argued that Neoliberalism has generated "successive degrees of insecurity for low-skilled citizens and migrants who will have to look beyond the state for the safeguarding of their rights [33]."

The US is a cheerleader in implementing a neoliberal policy, and in line with this policy, we can see that the US has never developed an immigration strategy that effectively deals with the forces that drive migration. In addition, the US has also encouraged human trafficking, and played a great role in generating a viable market for trafficking. This requires express recognition that specific elements of US law and policy actually facilitate the trafficking of human beings into and within the United States. Looking at the current US labor and immigration laws, it is expressly evident that they actually create incentives for trafficking and other forms of migrant exploitation in the United States [34].

The criminal penalties levied for drug trafficking are far greater than the ones for criminals who traffic in girls. These traffickers are rarely arrested and put on trial. Instead of the traffickers, it is the victims—largely children--who are relegated to the juvenile justice system, and criminalized for being raped and trafficked. The abused child is going to be incarcerated for the abuse perpetrated against them [35].

US lags behind the rest of the developed world in addressing the issues.

Former U.S. president, Jimmy Carter in his book "A Call To Action" describes the discriminatory view that permeates the American culture, which leads to widespread sexual abuse in American colleges and points to the fact that 95 percent of the victims remain silent:

"A report funded by the U.S. Justice Department found that more than 95 percent of students who are sexually assaulted remain silent, a much larger proportion than among the general public. The report’s analysis, conducted at the State University of New York in New Paltz, revealed that an institution of that size, with about 8,000 students, would be expected to have more than 1,700 female victims of rape or sexual assault during the eleven years of the study. However, only six students reported a sexual assault to the office responsible for initiating proceedings, and only three cases resulted in a campus hearing—with one male student expelled [36]".

Carter also considers the United States partly responsible for perpetrating the ongoing violence against women around the world, since the US holds such a great international influence [37]. He also turns to the role Christianity has played in these crimes, while he utterly mentions that Islam is free from any discrimination against women:

"The relegation of women to an inferior or circumscribed status by many religious leaders is one of the primary reasons for the promotion and perpetuation of sexual abuse. If potential male exploiters of women are led to believe that their victim is considered inferior or “different”, even by God, they can presume that it must be permissible to take advantage of their superior male status. It is crucial that devout believers abandon the premise that their faith mandates sexual discrimination. Islamic scholars assure me that there is no justification for this discrimination in the Koran, but there are specific verses in the Holy Bible that can be interpreted on either side of the issue, and some ascendant male leaders in all faiths take advantage of the interpretation most beneficial to them."

When U.S.-backed Terrorists Become the New Slaveholders

 In order to stop the flow of refugee immigrants to the European continent, the European Union decided to give Turkey $3.4 billion to do the job--stop Syrian immigrants in Turkey, and encourage them to stay put. Such a measure was being done by the EU as a humanitarian gesture [38]. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Jordan also received aid packages for the amount of €1.85 billion each [39].

It is not unreasonable to question the basis for such an aid plan, or even the soundness of this decision, considering that large sums of money are being paid by the EU, while Europe is dealing with chronic economic problems. All European economies are currently stricken with austerity plans that have caused the collapse of many governments, and have given rise to far right sentiments, which disfavor the austerity plans so dear to the proponents of a neoliberal economy.

Let’s start with the fact that the United States and the European Union started to sign free trade agreements with Turkey and Jordan at almost the same time in 2006. A free trade agreement makes the transfer of goods, services, and labor free of custom duties between the parties of the contract. But the fact is that the bigger economy is the winner with these kinds of agreements, because it has the greater means of production. In this case, the means of production are in the hands of big European and American companies. Under these free trade agreements, these companies gain a strong foothold on the other side of the contract, who are majorly poor or developing nations. American and EU companies start to reap the benefits off a cheap workforce for 12 hour or longer workdays, provided by the host country at nearly one fourth of minimum wage in US and European countries, which are also limited to 8 hour work days by labor laws. Minimum wage in the US stands at around $1320 a month for a maximum of 40 hours of work per week. This number is higher in major European countries, and amounts to around $1700 a month for nearly the same weekly hours, while a young Syrian child who works up to 60 hours a week earns less than $200 a month [40], which is not enough for them to pay their rent.

The legal framework for the US and Europe to use the cheap labor in Jordan [41] and Turkey was already in place in 2001[42] and in 2006. It is interesting to note that in 2006, Jordan had already been accused of “gross workers’ rights violations” under a free trade agreement that they signed with the United States and Israel. Despite the widespread labor abuses that were reported, US officials at the time sufficed to say that Jordan was “very receptive” on the subject of these labor issues. Gretchen Hamel, the then-US Trade Representative spokesperson said:

“We take any allegations of violations of labor rights by our trading partners very seriously” [43].

The Jordanian government, without the slightest expression of denial, regarding the existence of these abuses in Jordan, made it clear that it was taking measures to address the problem. While these remarks were made in 2006, these abuses continue to this day, and have become even more common as a result of the increased American and EU demand for the products made via slavery in Jordan.  As a result, apparel manufacturing in Jordan experienced a staggering boost, which was the direct result of the free trade agreement with the United States [44] and Europe.

Among the brands that started to work with Jordanian factories, which hold their workers in dismal conditions, Target and Walmart are two of the biggest ones, even though there have been many reports indicating abusive behavior toward the immigrants who worked in Jordan. Before their arrival in Jordan, they were promised a job with $1000 to $3000 a month, but upon their arrival their passports were seized by the factory owner, rending them basically trapped, unable to move freely in the city or return to their home country as they were devoid of any ID card. From that moment, these immigrants--mainly from Bangladesh and China—have been forced to work 20 hours a day, while their meager salaries are often postponed for several months. They are beaten by their supervisors, and even jailed in the event that they complain. Despite all these abuses, Europe has taken a further step to sign a new trade deal specially tailored to use the 200,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. Jordan also received hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and cheap loans [45].

In Turkey, the other contracting party, the same situation was also prevalent as Turkey had already signed a customs union treaty with the European Union. A customs union treaty is a sort of free trade agreement that cancels custom tax on certain products, in this case, products from the apparel industry.

It is against this background that we should analyze the refugee crisis and Europe’s aid to Turkey and Jordan. These two countries are now home to a majority of the Syrian refugees, who are suffering abuse from their supervisors. Turkey holds around 250,000 Syrian refugees, who are without a work permit, so they are forced to work in the unofficial economy of this country. A report recently published by Human Rights Watch claims that child labor is “rampant” in Turkey. This so-called unofficial economy is dominated by medium-sized factories and smaller workshops that work for European and American brands.

Not surprisingly, Syrian child refugees work under heavy exploitations in Turkey, and are in poor working conditions, with no auditing on the outsourced work from larger companies coming from the US and Europe. Turkey is the third largest supplier of clothing to Europe [46].

The Guardian makes it clear:

“In Istanbul, the white jumpers that Shukri [a Syrian child] is packing in boxes will be sent to Italy. Shukri shows me the brand stitched in the neck: Piazza Italia. The business that owns this workshop both sells to the Turkish market and exports to Germany and Italy, the supervisor says. Italian clothing company Piazza Italia did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment [47].”

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian adults in Turkey work for as little as $446 a month [48]. It is estimated that between 250,000 to 400,000 Syrian refugees are being exploited illegally by American and European companies in Turkey, helping to make Turkey the third major supplier of clothing to Europe, after China and Bangladesh [49].

These reports came just after 10,000 unaccompanied children were reported to be in the hands of sex traffickers. According to Europol chief of staff Brian Donald, 5,000 children had disappeared in Italy, while 1,000 were lost in Sweden. He also confirmed that a “criminal infrastructure” was now seeking to abuse child refugees [50].

What is totally evident in this scenario is the fact that European countries and the United States are pursuing their past tradition of slavery in a new form: by using a work force not directly on their soil, but in the countries with which they form alliance. In this case, the pattern of free trade agreements with Turkey and Jordan exactly match the ongoing abuses made from the Syrian refugee population. This created a dual benefit for the US and the EU, as they contain migrant flow and exploit these people in another country. All the aid provided to these countries were in form of blackmail, so that the allied countries would then provide the demanded services.


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