From Hebrew slaves in Egypt to modern-day human trafficking and lax labor laws.
What does slavery mean to us today?
At the seder on Passover, “the season of our freedom,” when we celebrate release “from the house of bondage,” Jewish families gather to discuss freedom and slavery. That discussion has now, as always, relevance. What does slavery mean to us today?
In this country, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1865, outlawed “slavery and involuntary servitude.” We do not typically see examples of classical slavery anymore: no slave auctions, no manacles keeping workers at their work stations, no gangs searching for runaways to bring them back in chains, no advertisements in newspapers offering rewards for the return of escaped slaves.
But we do have workers in slave-like conditions. Bridgette Carr, clinical professor at the University of Michigan Law School and director of the Human Trafficking Clinic, knows more about these workers than she ever expected to find out.
Carr came to law school wanting to work in asylum and refugee law.
“When I was contacted by women who had been forced to work in a strip club on Eight Mile Road in Detroit, I tried to turn them down: It was not my specialty,” Carr said. “They had trouble finding representation. Eventually, I agreed to represent a few of these clients.”
That case attracted nationwide media attention because, as Carr explains, “the women were white, college-age and the case involved sex.” The women thought they were coming to the U.S. from Eastern Europe for legitimate employment. When they got here, the traffickers explained the job had dried up, and the women had to work off the expenses for their travel. The traffickers took their passports.
The case developed when a few women escaped. It was the first federal prosecution of traffickers in Michigan. As it turned out, Carr says, “It was a totally atypical case.”
“Since then, I have never had a case that checked all the boxes like that one,” she says. “But, after that one case, other cases came to me. I was an expert for having the experience of that one case. When I looked around, I really was a relative ‘expert’ because others had no experience at all.”
She started the clinic in 2009; now it is staffed by three law professors and from 16-24 law students.
The headlines emphasize sex workers, but Carr says she has seen badly exploited workers in a wide variety of industries: nail salons, landscapers, restaurants, food processing plants, janitorial services, farms, hair-braiding services, and on and on. “It is harder to find an industry where I’ve never seen compulsion and exploitation,” she says.
The headlines emphasize undocumented immigrants, but “plenty of legal residents and U.S. citizens get exploited,” Carr says. “Youth, poverty, lack of access to markets, personal history of abuse and trauma, all create vulnerability.
“Exploiters are skilled at finding vulnerability. Traffickers do not generally feel distressed if they lose a victim. They can easily find a replacement. There is not much danger that the trafficker will get into trouble. It is hard to find a prosecutor willing to take on a criminal case against a trafficker, even if the victim wants to prosecute, and many victims do not.”
The victims have reason to want to remain silent.
“If there is a case,” Carr says, “the victims are always on trial: Are they the perfect victims? Did they never make bad choices? If not, watch out. The system scrutinizes every thought, belief and choice of the victim, when it should put on trial the thoughts, beliefs and choices of the trafficker.”
So, prosecutors might decide not to prosecute, not trusting a jury to convict a wealthy, articulate, successful businessman on the testimony of poor, unsuccessful workers who might be ill, inarticulate, foreign, addicted to drugs and probably feel ashamed.
Carr calls attention to highways in Michigan, where you can see big billboards with messages like:
Oriental Spa. Open 9 a.m.-1 a.m.
Parking for Tractor-trailers.
“What is the message to us as we drive by those billboards?” Carr asks. “Who is for sale? Foreigners from the Orient. Don’t worry, it is not for your daughters. Who is buying? Tractor-trailer drivers. Don’t worry, it is not for your husband or boyfriend.
“So, the billboard says to drivers: ‘You don’t have to care. Other people selling people to other people; none of your concern.’
“Try to imagine putting up a giant billboard for some other illegal activity; say, drugs: ‘Score cocaine at this address, open day and night hours.’ We would not allow that. But we allow billboards to advertise coerced work. We do the traffickers’ work for the trafficker by normalizing exploitive work.”
Labor Law Enforcement?
Minimum-wage laws, overtime pay rules, workplace safety regulations and other enactments protect the rights of workers throughout the United States. Marianne LeVine conducted an investigation of labor law enforcement for Politico magazine in February. In nearly every state, budgets for labor law enforcement have been cut in the past decade. Six states have no mechanism for enforcing labor law at all. The federal Department of Labor has slightly fewer investigators than it had in 1948, while the U.S. labor force includes seven times as many workers.
“We have federal and state laws protecting workers,” LeVine writes, “but advocates for low-income workers across the country say employers routinely violate these laws with little fear of getting caught. And, even in states with comparatively robust labor departments, enforcement is lax.”
The 13th Amendment bans all “slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Inmates of prisons, for example, can be compelled to work in slave-like conditions. They even volunteer for such work.
An inmate in a Michigan Correctional Facility wrote me (Louis Finkelman) about working while imprisoned. His favorite job, as prisoner, was teaching world history to young offenders as part of a program to encourage them not to continue their criminal careers. He qualified for this teaching by graduating from college and earning a post-graduate degree — by correspondence, of course, because he could not attend classes.
“I was asked by Warden G to volunteer due to my degree; but later, when the pay was taken away, I continued to prepare and teach these pseudo-college classes … I did youthful offender orientation for nearly four years and all because one of the officers I liked asked me to do him a favor.”
Most prisoners work at lower prestige jobs: “We do custodian and grounds maintenance, everything in the kitchen, tutoring in school, ensure that the library operates smoothly, and work in various state-run factories,” he writes.
Inmates get paid considerably less than minimum wage.
“Wages haven’t changed since at least 1987,” he writes. “For instance, a clerk can make $1.77 a day, but most jobs are between $0.74 and $1.31. Certain jobs, like tutors and aides, can make up to $3.34 a day, based on educational level.”
Inmates volunteer for work, even at these artificially low wages.
“Now, a person can choose not to work,” the inmate writes, “but if he has a recommendation to work and doesn’t, he can be denied parole. Also, if a man is offered a job and declines, he can be confined to his room from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day.”
These inmates have some of the features of classical slavery or involuntary servitude. They get paid an unusually low salary; they can get punished for failing to volunteer for work; they cannot run away from their jobs. When for-profit companies, such as Corrections Corporation of America, operate the prisons, then we can invest in these corporations and become part-owners of involuntary servants.
At the seder, when we remember slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago, let us also think of modern workers who live in slave-like conditions.
What can an ordinary citizen do? Bridgette Carr of the Human Trafficking Clinic at U-M, says, “Watch the rhetoric. Rhetoric matters. When we commodify people, we help the exploiters. If we call people ‘illegals,’ we push them into the camp of ‘others,’ who are no concern of ours. Then we do the work of the traffickers.
“In this discussion, there is no neutral. We either give each individual human dignity, acknowledge that each individual has human dignity or we take away human dignity from ‘others.’
“When we do not acknowledge the human dignity of certain people, we take away human dignity and do the work of the exploiter.”
What if you see an exploitive situation? Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. It offers one-stop “shopping” for reporting trafficking anywhere in the country and is staffed 24/7.
If the case should involve the U-M Human Trafficking Clinic, the people at the resource center will contact the clinic at (734) 615-3600 or at email@example.com.
Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer