Anti-capitalism Economy History Labor

Modern Slavery and the Triumph of Capitalism, Part 2: Modern Slavery in the USA

By Mike Kolhoff

“Forced labor is most prevalent in five sectors of the US economy: prostitution and sex services (46%); domestic service (27%); agriculture (10%); sweatshop/factory work (5%); and restaurant and hotel work (4%).” David Batstone, Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade, 2010, p. 214

The USA is not the only country where modern slavery exists, or even the one with the highest level of modern slavery, but it is the country that does make the biggest noise about “liberty”. It is also one of the few western countries where slavery existed as a legal institution after 1850. The peculiar symbol of the huge crack in the Liberty Bell perhaps best illustrates the broken nature of the “liberty” won by the American War of Independence, a liberty that left 4 million living in chattel slavery. So liberty in the United States was then, and is today, hypocrisy wrapped in abstraction.

Slavery did not end in the USA in 1865, but the legal institution of slavery did. There is an undeniable difference between being legally owned by capitalists as personal property, and in being merely rented as another type of resource for use in extracting profit. The first is infinitely worse, but both are without question fundamentally dehumanizing. In the eyes of the capitalists, the only difference is one of profitability. Eventually it was discovered by the capitalists that it was more cost-effective to rent workers rather than own them outright.  While wage-labor soon came to dominate as the preferred method of exploitation, slavery continues to be a source of profit to the present day. 

In the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report released by the State Department some trends in modern slavery in the United States were noted. The report includes several examples of modern slavery including the “abuse of third-country nationals trafficked to work on military bases, migrant domestic workers subjected to forced labor by diplomats and international organization personnel, and temporary guest workers in a variety of industries forced to work under horrifying conditions with nowhere to turn. While it’s important that the report stresses there’s more the U.S. government can do to stem trafficking in America, it offers nothing new and recycles much of its findings and recommendations from past years — recommendations that still haven’t been fully implemented.”

In short: the US government is well aware that slavery exists and is growing.   Further, it has joined the ranks of those who exploit slave labor either through complacency or concerted effort.  For example we turn to the experience of Prakash Adhikari:

“He left his village in Nepal in 2004 after local labor recruiters falsely promised him work in five-star hotels and restaurants in Jordan…Based on this promise, Adhikari borrowed heavily to pay the recruitment fees he had been charged. After he arrived in Jordan, his passport was seized, and he was transported against his will to Iraq to work for a U.S. government subcontractor called Daoud & Partners. En route to the military base, the convoy in which he was traveling, along with dozens of men in the same predicament, was attacked by Iraqi insurgents. He and 11 other similarly trafficked men in the convoy were later executed.”

The United States’ involvement in the exploitation of slave labor is more than just an isolated incident or an unfortunate mistake.  Rather, it is a major contributor to the growth of modern slavery.

“Since 2003, similar labor trafficking schemes, enabled by the government’s deficient oversight and accountability mechanisms, have resulted in thousands of foreign workers hired to work on U.S. government contracts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, as cooks, janitors, cleaners, and mechanics on U.S. military bases and diplomatic missions. In 2011, there were more than 60,000 such workers in Iraq and Afghanistan alone.” (ACLU Blog of Rights, 06/24/2014).

How Many Slaves?

“Hundreds of thousands are being held against their will today (in the USA)…many are forced to work on farms, in factories, or the commercial sex trade.” (CNN, “Human Trafficking: Modern Slavery in America”, 2012)

The figure quoted in every official report of modern slavery in the US is “17,500 trafficked into the country every year”. This figure first appeared in a 2006 State Department trafficking report, as an estimate. Even if this estimate is low (and it is), the figure of 140,000 people trafficked into the country since 2006 does not include the many thousands who are enslaved while already living here. The FBI reports that there 293,000 children ALONE who are likely suffering as sex slaves in the United States, with the additional revelation that 83% of the victims in confirmed sex trafficking cases were American citizens.

Victims of human trafficking are offered little or no help, and it’s not enough that the victims are offered no assistance; very often the victims of sex slavery are themselves treated as criminals in the American justice system. Children exploited within the sex work industry are arrested, charged, and then bailed back out to their masters/pimps on a regular business. The few such operations that have faced prosecution have been because of the repetition of this insanity, and the gradual realization of justice officials that something might be amiss.

According to the Global Slavery Index, as of 2014 there were at least 60,000 people who live as modern slaves in the United States: “The United States (US) is a destination of exploitation for both US citizens and foreign nationals, predominately from Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, Honduras, Guatemala, India and El Salvador. Men, women and children are exploited as forced laborers, and in the commercial sex industry. In 2013, potential modern slavery cases were reported in fifty states of the US.  Victims of forced labor have been identified in domestic work and home healthcare, the food service industry, construction and agriculture, nursing, factories and garment-manufacturing,9 beauty salons, janitorial services, and travelling sales crews, among other sectors.”

So we see here the problem with estimating the number of slaves in the United States. Each source uses different methodology. Each methodology considers different factors. By correlating the various estimates, we might get a figure closer to a real estimate. This would come in at over 250,000 people living in slavery conditions in the USA; and if we include prison laborers, a growing industrial sector, we have a figure of over 300,000, at LEAST. The magical thing about prison industry and prison labor: as crime goes down, the prison population continues to increase. The criminal justice system appears to be actively recruiting cheap labor for manufacturing work; workers that can never organize or go on strike, because if they did they would be tear gassed, beaten, or executed on the spot. Paid literally pennies for their work, subject to brutal punishment, and with every aspect of their lives controlled by their employer, they definitely meet any reasonable definition of slave.

It is not a cliché to say that many of America’s great fortunes are based on the exploitation of slavery. It’s more of an embarrassing fact. For example:

Lehman Brothers– according to the Sun Times, the financial services firm acknowledged recently that its founding partners owned not one, but several enslaved Africans during the Civil War era and that, “in all likelihood,” it “profited significantly” from slavery.

“This is a sad part of our heritage …We’re deeply apologetic … It was a terrible thing … There’s no one sitting in the United States in the year 2005, hopefully, who would ever, in a million years, defend the practice,” said Joe Polizzotto, general counsel of Lehman Brothers.

Aetna, Inc. – the United States’ largest health insurer, apologized for selling policies in the 1850s that reimbursed slave owners for financial losses when the enslaved Africans they owned died.

“Aetna has long acknowledged that for several years shortly after its founding in 1853 that the company may have insured the lives of slaves,” said Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge in 2002. “We express our deep regret over any participation at all in this deplorable practice.”

JP Morgan Chase– “Today, we are reporting that this research found that, between 1831 and 1865, two of our predecessor banks—Citizens Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana—accepted approximately 13,000 enslaved individuals as collateral on loans and took ownership of approximately 1,250 of them when the plantation owners defaulted on the loans,” the company wrote in a statement.

CSX Railroad– used slave labor to construct portions of some U.S. rail lines under the political and legal system that was in place more than a century ago.

Two enslaved Africans who the company rented were identified as John Henry and Reuben. The record states, “they were to be returned clothed when they arrived to work for the company.”

Individual enslaved Africans cost up to $200 – the equivalent of $3,800 today – to rent for a season and CSX took full advantage.

Brown Brothers Harriman is the oldest and largest private investment bank and securities firm in the United States, founded in 1818. USA Today found that the New York merchant bank of James and William Brown, currently known as Brown Bros. Harriman owned hundreds of enslaved Africans and financed the cotton economy by lending millions to southern planters, merchants and cotton brokers.

The list seems endless. Slave wealth is without question one of the foundations of the American master class, in the same way that the theft of First Nations tribal lands built their fortunes. So we can say without hyperbole that American wealth has been built on sadism, slavery and outright theft. Likewise it should come as no shock that America, the “world policeman”, refuses to do anything about the rise of modern slavery. Why should it? How could it, when it directly participates in, and profits from, such activities? If the USA participated in police activities against modern slavery they would likely be of the same sort as those against the illegal drug trade: aimed more at getting a piece of the profits than eliminating the source of the profits, which would be “un-American”.

The rise of modern slavery in America is a return to the roots of American capitalism, to the “good old days”, when capitalism ruled unopposed and the greatest virtue was the highest possible profit.

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