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12 Years a Slave. (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Let’s Stop Using the Term ‘Modern-Day Slavery’

• April 01, 2014 • 9:00 AM

12 Years a Slave. (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Human trafficking isn’t a relic of history.

Last week, 59-year-old Tieu Tran, a former nail salon owner in Minnesota, pleaded guilty to human trafficking in U.S. District Court. According to court documents, in 2008, Tran recruited a woman from Vietnam to come work in the U.S., promising her a high-paying job and help immigrating into the country legally. She did not keep either of those promises.

Instead, Tran smuggled the woman (and two other people) into the country through Mexico, and then held her in a permanent state of indentured servitude, forcing her to work off her “debt” in Tran’s son’s Vietnamese restaurant. From the Department of Justice on Wednesday:

Tran admitted to compelling the victim to work long hours without paying her as promised, using a scheme, plan and pattern of non-violent coercion.  This included manipulation of debts, isolation and verbal intimidation to hold the victim in fear, knowing that the victim was without legal status and money, did not have the ability to speak English, feared losing her family home in Vietnam to creditors and had nowhere else to turn for subsistence.

Tran faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, as well as a $250,000 fine; federal investigators are looking into her case to find and help other similar victims of her scheme.

“Human trafficking” is an odd term. The word “trafficking” seems to want to reduce the problem to a shipping and customs issue, and yet the word “human” before it tells us that the products of the trade are living, breathing people. Hearing this term might call up mental images of malnourished children in third-world sweatshops, or weird underground sex rings somewhere seedy, or prostitutes trapped in shipping containers, like on that one season of The Wire.

The word “trafficking” seems to want to reduce the problem to a shipping and customs issue, and yet the word “human” before it tells us that the products of the trade are living, breathing people.

Not to diminish the evil nature of sex trafficking, a crime which persists despite international attention and efforts (a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) survey estimated that sexual exploitation was the motive for 79 percent of all human trafficking, globally). But we’re less likely, probably, to think about the banality of a waitress working long hours, for no pay, for years on end. A waitress or a dish-washer who doesn’t think she can complain to the authorities because she doesn’t speak the language and because she’s been told that she’ll be arrested and punished if she goes for help, because she’s not supposed to be here anyway.

That banal set of circumstances is all too common. According to the U.S. State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Report,” published in June 2013, victims can be found in any number of jobs and industries, not just the ones that might immediately come to mind. From the section of the report that focuses on trafficking in the U.S.:

Trafficking can occur in many licit and illicit industries or markets, including in brothels, massage parlors, street prostitution, hotel services, hospitality, agriculture, manufacturing, janitorial services, construction, health and elder care, and domestic service. Individuals who entered the United States without legal status have been identified as trafficking victims, as have participants in visa programs for temporary workers who filled labor needs in many of the industries described above.

In fact, the victims of forced-labor trafficking who call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline the most are domestic workers, like maids, nannies, and cooks. In the first five years of operation, starting in 2007, the hotline received reports of over 9,000 unique cases of potential forced labor. The State Department has found that the most common countries of origin for trafficking are Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, Honduras, Indonesia, and Guatemala. The Department of Justice has convicted a total of 151 people in the U.S. on human trafficking charges in 2011, and 138 people in 2012.

Globally, the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 21 million people are currently trapped in forced-labor situations. That’s approximately three out of every 1,000 people in the world. (Although, interestingly, the ILO counts in its total “state-imposed forms of forced labour,” including people in prisons.)

It’s impossible to know how many victims there are, of course, as the endurance of forced-labor depends upon its being concealed. The UNODC report also notes that forced labor statistics are harder to calculate than sex-trafficking statistics, because those cases are much less likely to be detected or reported.

When stories do come to light, they are often described by commentators and journalists as “modern-day slavery.” But “modern-day slavery” is another odd term, and one that’s used in many of the reports cited above. The insistence on qualifying the act with a time period makes any particular instance of the crime seem like an anomaly. The term implies that slavery is generally a thing of the past, but that every once in a while, we might unearth an anachronistic, and therefore, shocking “modern-day” instance of it.

Clearly, though, slavery hasn’t ever left us, 13th Amendment or no. It’s not some ancient historical relic we’ve left behind. It’s just that it’s no longer legal, and it now happens in secret. Let’s call it, simply: slavery.

Steve McQueen got it right when he accepted an Oscar for his film 12 Years a Slave, ending his speech by dedicating the award “to all of the people who have endured slavery, and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.” He didn’t say the words “modern-day” slavery; he didn’t have to. McQueen’s film told a true story—one that played out during a shameful period in American history. The end of his speech told another true story—one that’s happening right now.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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