Behind Closed Doors
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Behind Closed Doors

The hard truth about modern slavery in our own backyard.

Behind Closed Doors

How do you own up to your own ignorance? That was the question that I contemplated for longer than I would like to admit. In a time of innovation and knowledge, it is hard for any of us to accept, let alone admit, our own ignorance. However, I write this as vulnerable as ever to own up to my ignorance in hopes that you can do the same.

As cliché as this has become in the last few months, the pandemic has altered my life in more than a few ways. For better or for worse, one of those aspects was my college life. I am not going to get into the social aspect of my college life, but rather into my academic one. I struggled to find classes for the fall semester of my third year in college, to say the least. All of the classes that I had planned on taking were no longer being offered because of the pandemic and I had to find some to fill up my required credits. I stumbled upon a 400-level sociology course about human trafficking, and after reading the course description, I knew that I had to take it. Little did I know that I was signing up for more than I had intended.

If you have any idea of what human trafficking is, you might think that it has to do with sex trafficking. Although that is partly true, it is not completely right. As defined by Homeland Security, human trafficking—or modern slavery, which is another umbrella term used for the same concept and is often interchanged with human trafficking—"involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act." In order to have a good understanding of modern slavery, we need to know how it is different from the old slavery that everyone knows about.

When slavery was finally illegal in 1865, a new slavery began to immerse. What we call modern slavery is much more complex than old slavery. Back when slavery was legal and expensive, slave owners would make sure that they had legal ownership over slaves. Modern slavery does not concern itself with this because slaves are disposable. They are very cheap to obtain and keep. They are easily replaceable because there are thousands of people who desperately want work. They are also very cheap to keep because they aren't concerned with making sure that these slaves can stay alive and working for a long time. Once they are cannot use them anymore, they can easily obtain another one. Slaveholders can keep slaves in check with abuse, fear, fraud, and coercion. All of which are much cheaper forms of bondage than legal ownership. Additionally, modern slavery does not care about race or ethnicity. Slaves are also less rarely sold; oftentimes they are tricked into slavery. Some victims do not even know that they are slaves because bondage is no longer simply about being chained.

There are several reasons for these changes in slavery. Slavery evolved because once it was illegal, it became something to hide and caused it to be much more difficult to catch and prosecute. The capitalist and industrialized society also contributed to this change in slavery. Slavery became about increasing profits or reducing costs by using slave labor. It made modern slavery affordable and introduced disposable slaves.

These changes unfortunately make modern slavery much more inhumane. Slaves are seen as means to an end. They are very disposable and are seen as having less worth because they can easily replace one slave with another. Some slaveholders actually see themselves as helping the slaves and giving them something to do. They see them as inferior and helpless.

Human trafficking can be found in more places other than the sex industry. It can be seen in many labor branches like agriculture and farm work, restaurant and food services, health and beauty services, and domestic services. The domestic service industry is one aspect that I would like to focus on, for reasons that will become apparent later on.

Domestic servitude is the second-highest form of human trafficking in the United States and one that is rarely profitable for the employer. It is also one that happens behind closed doors which makes abuse harder to notice. In 2017, the Global Slavery Index found that there was an estimate of two million domestic workers in the country. "A domestic work situation becomes trafficking when the employer uses force, fraud, or coercion to main control over the worker and to cause the worker to believe that he or she has no other choice but to continue with the work." [1] Many of those workers who become victims of abuse are migrants.

Thousands of live-in domestic workers enter the United States legally with one of the following three visas: "A-3 visas to work for ambassadors, diplomats, consular officers, public ministers, and their families; G-5 visas to work for officers and employees of international organizations or of foreign missions to international organizations and their families; and B-1 visas to accompany U.S. citizens who reside abroad but are visiting the United States or assigned to the United States temporarily for no more than four years, or foreign nationals with nonimmigrant status in the United States." [2]

Unfortunately, this visa system enables domestic slavery because of its lack of oversight and legal loopholes. The visa system ties the domestic workers to their employers that brought them to the US. When a visa is awarded to an employee, it is only done for their employment under someone who is essentially advocating for them. This means that the loss of their employment leads to the loss of their legal immigration status. This creates a fear and threat of being undocumented if they leave their "employer." Escaping the abuse means the risk of being deported, and thus, their legal standing ties them to their abuser. To further complicate their situation, most abusive employees withhold the victim's visa, employment contract, and any form of identification that they might have to prevent them from running away.

Our visa system does not have any sort of program that tracks the employees' whereabouts. Once they leave the immigration officer, workers are at the mercy of their employers. Even if there are addresses listed in their applications, no effort is made into following up with the employer or employee. Thus, no protection against abuse or fraud that might be happening.

There are also legal loopholes in this visa system. Some of the employers have diplomatic immunity and cannot be charged for any of the crimes that they have committed. It is so easy for a diplomat to bring in domestic servants into the country and abuse them. Other employers can be easily transferred out of the country if any "trouble" rises up. Although there are contract requirements for the employers, they just have to list reasonable living and working conditions. Anyone can lie and say that they will uphold the contract requirements because there are no follow-ups or oversight to make sure that they comply with those conditions.

To muddy domestic servitude victims' situation even more, as migrants, they are often ostracized from our culture and language. Without knowing anyone or the language, they are in isolation and unaware of our customs and laws. This is used against them by the employers to make them think that no one will help them and that the only people that they can trust is them. Thus, they are less inclined to report the abuse. But even when they do escape and try to report it, the police are not trained to notice or deal with human trafficking, and many times, victims end up deported back to the same home situation that forced them to take this job in the first place or back to their abusers' custody.

What makes all of this more difficult to take in is the fact that many of these abuses could be prevented by amending our visa policies and implementing a program that focuses on assuring compliance with the employment contract and living and working conditions. These issues have been brought to light and recommendations on how to fix them have been given by stronger organizations, like the Human Rights Watch. Nevertheless, the government has done nothing to fix our visa system.

After taking all of that information in and reading the awful stories of victims and survivors of human trafficking, I was unsure about how to move on with this class. Naturally, I started writing. The very least that I could do was share this information and help eliminate the ignorance of this extremely important issue.

I hesitated about using the word "ignorance" to talk about this topic because it had such a negative connotation that it might insult the person reading this and deter them from taking the information in. After pondering for some time, I decided to keep the word. You see, the definition of the word itself says that it merely stands to describe the state of not having some said knowledge. It is not calling anyone a bad name, it is in fact, stating the truth: you have no knowledge in regard to this subject. We should not be taking it personally or as a word meant to cause harm when in reality it is meant to cause well. It is a call to action; it is saying that you have no knowledge yet. Own up to it because maybe then we can shed light on human rights issues like this one.

So yes, like many people, I was ignorant of human trafficking, but not anymore. And if you are still reading this, then neither are you. You can no longer be blind to human trafficking. This doesn't mean that your job ends here and that this is an article with the complete facts and information on human trafficking. Now, I am not asking you to go out and end human trafficking (although, if you want to take that path, please do so) because it cannot be done by one person. Trust me, I know. However, you can continue to educate yourself. You can volunteer. You can shop more consciously. You can keep your eyes out for any victims. You can own up to your ignorance and encourage others to do the same. This is not about shame, but about hope. Hope that future college students will not be taking a course on the current issue of human trafficking, but on its history.

[1] Human Trafficking Hotline

[2] Human Rights Watch

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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