Obama Takes On Lincoln’s Unfinished Job: Slavery
Obama’s recent speech at the Clinton Global Initiative called attention to slavery, an issue most people believe to be resolved in the past or at least no longer relevant to the United States. WNR’s Natalia Choi explores the current state of slavery and abolition in the United States and abroad.
Storified by Natalia Choi · Thu, Oct 04 2012 18:30:13
“At many times during itstravels and hearings, the Commission uncovered tragic evidence of the recurrentproblem of trafficking in persons by labor brokers or subcontractors ofcontingency contractors. Existing prohibitions on such trafficking have failedto suppress it. Labor brokers or subcontractors have an incentive to lurethird-country nationals into coming to work for United States contractors, onlyto be mistreated or exploited.”
The “third-country nationals” mentionedin the report above refer to the 70,000 people, from countries such as Bangladesh,Fiji and the Philippines who are hired by contractors (hired by the U.S.government) to work for the U.S. military bases for services suchas cleaning, cooking, and constructing. The 2011 New Yorker report wrote:
“Thevast majority—more than sixty per cent of the total (contracting force) in Iraq—aren’t hired guns but hired hands.These workers, primarily from South Asia and Africa, often live in barbed-wirecompounds on U.S. bases… A large number are employed by fly-by-nightsubcontractors who are financed by the American taxpayer but who often operateoutside the law… Manyof them recount having been robbed of wages, injured without compensation,subjected to sexual assault, and held in conditions resembling indenturedservitude by their subcontractor bosses…”
According Dov Zakheim of the Commission onWartime Contracting, the recent investigations reveal only the “tip of the iceberg”in the number of unreported cases of forced labor used in U.S. military basesabroad. Obama echoed the sentiment of Senator Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a primesponsor of the End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act of 2012, who said that”Modern-day slavery by government contractors — unknowingly funded byAmerican taxpayers — is unconscionable and intolerable.”
Obama’s new Executive Order, signed onthe day of the speech, expands governmental anti-trafficking regulations bybanning federal contractors and subcontractors from using forced labor in theirbusiness. Though careful oversight and accountability is difficult to enforcegiven the vast scope of the U.S. military bases abroad, the Executive Orderhelps strengthen the U.S. existing stance against slavery by explicitlyprohibiting federal contractors and subcontractors from using misleadingrecruitment practices (i.e. charging recruitment fees or destroying orconfiscating workers’ passports). The order also requires compliance measuresfor large overseas contracts and subcontracts, and provides training forfederal agencies to better ensure contractors’ compliance. The recent inclusionof the United States in its own Trafficking in Persons Report, a report by the U.S. Department of State to assessthe nations’ progress of anti-human trafficking measures around the world, promises hope to better upholdAmerican government’s accountability on human trafficking.
In order to sustain and expand current government’s initiativesdedicated to eradicating slavery, Obama called for the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a comprehensive legislation first passed by Congressin 2000 to establish governmental prevention, protection, and prosecutionprograms to fight human trafficking. The re-authorization would help provideresources to train investigators, law enforcement and transportation personnel,and educators to better spot and stop trafficking. The act would also helpensure that victims by increasing access to social services and allowing visasfor trafficked victims to prosecute their traffickers rather than being criminalizedfor prostitution or illegal immigration. Obama also mentioned pursuinginnovative initiatives such as using technology, a common tool used bytraffickers to exploit their victims, to instead locate and help victims. In addition, Obama encouraged consumersto be conscientious in their purchases by using sites like SlaveryFootprint.orgto estimate the use of slavery labor that may be involved in the production ofclothes, food, and products we consume.
Obama overlooked the intensepartisan divide in Congress in order to call for teamwork on combating “one ofthe great human rights causes of our time.” However, media coverage of thisspeech was minimal as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof noted:
“When President Obama made alandmark speech against modern slavery on Tuesday, many of us in the news mediashrugged. It didn’t fit into the political narrative. It wasn’t controversial,so — yawn — it wasn’t really news.”
Slavery is not only a moral but economicimperative that requires actions from all levels of society, from individualconsumers to government. There is much left to be done to complete President Lincoln’sunfinished job, but Obama’s speech has shed light on the little-knowncontinuing 21st century fight against slavery.