Obama Takes On Lincoln’s Unfinished Job: Slavery

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

President Obama Speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meetingwhitehouse
“I’mtalking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must becalled by its true name — modern slavery,” saidPresident Obama in a speech addressed at the Clinton Global Initiative thisTuesday. The speech, given a couple days after the 150th anniversary of theEmancipation Proclamation, called attention to one ofthe fastest growing and mostlucrative illegal industries enslaving anestimated 27 million people around the world. PresidentObama affirmed the United States’ “zerotolerance” of slavery with the signing of a new Executive Order and also urged allindividuals, communities, and nations to take action against this“barbaric” and “evil” crime.
The United States government considers “humantrafficking” to include “all ofthe criminal conduct involved in forced labor and sex trafficking, essentiallythe conduct involved in reducing or holding someone in compelled service.” Modernday slavery can be found anywhere from factories and agricultural fields tobrothels and massage parlors, and even domestic homes. According to the US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, thereare an estimated 14,500 to 17,500people, primarily women and children, trafficked into the U.S. annually. In his speech, Obama spoke of Sheila White, a 15-year old who fled anabusive home in the Bronx only to fall into the hands of a trafficker to bebeaten and sold, to remind the American public that slavery still exists onAmerican soil. But U.S. ties to modern day slavery extend beyond ourborders to our military bases abroad.

In 2011, Project On Government Oversight (POGO) revealed evidence of humantrafficking in the U.S. government sponsored contractor workforce in war zonesand other contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The contractor workforceconsists of laborers hired by an extensive network of companies to provideservices for the U.S. military such as cleaning, building facilities, andtaking out trash. These laborers were frequently subject to abuse and no pay asshown in the case with the workers for Najlaa International Catering Services, asubcontractor to the U.S. military, who were “confined for as long as three months in windowless warehouses near the Baghdad airport without money or a place to work.”
Documents Reveal Details of Alleged Labor Trafficking by KBR SubcontractorThe men came to Iraq lured by the promise of employment by Najlaa International Catering Services, a subcontractor performing work for Ho…
The Commission on Wartime Contractingcontinued further investigations and published a report finding that:

“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…”

The U.S. Military’s "Third-Country Nationals"It was lunchtime in Suva, Fiji, a slow day at the end of the tourist season in September of 2007, when four men appeared in the doorway o…

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.”


In Obama’s Speech, Their VoicesBut women like Sina Vann noticed. She’s a friend of mine who was trafficked as a young girl from Vietnam into Cambodian brothels – where …

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.

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