What Has Happened to the 13th Amendment?

By Tammy Blevins-GiersonOPINION headshot

Am I mistaken, or did the 13th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America ban slavery in the U.S. and in all places subject to its jurisdiction?

Since the ratification of this amendment, our economy has grown exponentially. We live in a world that is much more connected now. Our global economy has many supply chains. Products we buy in the U.S. come from all over the world. How can we be sure that we are not buying into a supply chain that exploits our fellow human beings?

In addition to our United States Constitution, The United Nations General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

How can it can be true, then, that our world contains more cases of human bondage today than any time in our history?

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 3,287 people are sold or otherwise coerced into slavery every single day. That translates into 13.6 men, women and children every single hour of every single day! Yes, you read that right.

What’s more disenchanting is the fact that while the cost of just about every commodity in our global marketplace has gone up in price over the last 150 years since slavery was banned, the price of a human life has dropped tremendously. During the transatlantic slave trade, the average cost of a slave in the South was $40,000 by today’s standards. The average price for a human being today is a mere $100.

Most Americans probably would not believe it, but nearly half of the world’s trafficking is generated right here at home in the good old U S of A. That’s right, every 10 minutes a woman or child is trafficked into the U.S. for forced labor.

To top it all off, the U.S. government currently spends 300 times more dollars each year to combat illegal drug trafficking than it does to combat trafficking in humans. What’s wrong with this picture and how do we transform it into something more humane?

According to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on Trafficking in Persons, we need to fight this epidemic using the three Ps: Prevention, Protection and Prosecution. Prevention of this heinous act by increasing awareness of the world community; Protection of those who are survivors of this crime; and Prosecution of those contractors or foreign labor recruiters who allow this to happen in the first place.

As social workers we know that change does not come easily, but we also know that the best way to initiate change is through legislation. The good news is that there is a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives right now that addresses all three Ps. It is known as H.R. 3344 or Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination Act of 2013 (FORTE). This bill was introduced by Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) from the 39th district. FORTE was presented in the House on October 28, 2013 and in addition to Representative Royce, it now has 73 co-sponsors.

This bill will have a high impact in preventing human trafficking. Foreign contractors will now be required to adhere to strict rules of transparency by providing the foreign worker with a clear and concise contract both in English and in the employee’s native language. These contracts will describe all aspects of the employment, including the name and address of the employer, hours expected to work and any fees that are expected to be paid.

The bill will also provide protection by adding obligations to the U.S. Consular Officers in each country to insure that no visa be issued without stringent adherence to laws regarding foreign labor recruiting disclosures and provision of a resources pamphlet to each applicant explaining what their rights are and how to contact designated personnel at each post.

Lastly, it will provide prosecution by making the Secretary of State responsible for keeping the “Overseas Availability of Foreign Labor Contractors List” and insuring any violations by contractors be posted on that list (to be updated at least every six months). The list shall be provided publicly in written form (in the official language of the host country) and also at websites of each U.S. diplomatic and consular’s post.

As social workers and social justice advocates, we must ensure that this very important bill does not die in committee. We must do everything in our power to contact our representatives in Washington and ask them to revive this bill in order to restore humanity and put a stop to the modern day slave trade. Our country and the world rely on the social work profession as guidance for action. Now is our time to act!

Tammy Blevins-Gierson is currently working on her master’s degree in social work at University of Southern California and can be reached at tammy.sue@earthlink.net.


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