America’s Dirty Underbelly: Human Trafficking under Capitalism

As the crisis of capitalism intensifies, rates of human trafficking are rising even in the richest country in the world. One of the largest human trafficking busts in American history was recently in the headlines with the publication of The Great Escape by Saket Soni—a labor organizer who became involved in the case after receiving an anonymous phone call from one of 500 Indian slave workers at a Mississippi site, who revealed horrific abuses of human and workers’ rights.

In 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, a company called Signal International was granted permission to hire immigrant workers to repair damaged oil rigs in the Gulf Coast. The recruiters targeted Indian workers, promising them green cards and good jobs if they first paid $20,000 for the cost of recruitment and transportation. Many of the workers sold everything they owned to come up with these huge sums, expecting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

However, once they got to the US, they were not given permanent residency, but rather, temporary H-2B visas which restricted them to working exclusively for Signal International—or they would lose the right to stay in the US. The workers were housed two-dozen-to-a-trailer in a camp that was built on a toxic waste site. They were fed frozen and rotten food and forced to work 24-hour shifts. An obscene $1,000 was deducted from their pay every month for room and board. The company kept the workers after their visas lapsed, and used the threat of deportation to control them. They were surveilled 24/7 by guards, and were not allowed to leave the camp without a company official.

Eventually, the workers were able to escape with the help of a labor rights organization, and marched on Washington, DC to demand justice. In 2015, Signal International was taken to court on multiple charges of human trafficking, ultimately settling the cases, and paying the workers over $30 million in restitution. Many of these workers were given trafficking visas, which opened pathways to US citizenship.

Human trafficking slavery
Estimates of how many individuals are being trafficked in the US range anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands. / Image: Kyle Cope, public domain

However, such outcomes are rare for victims of human trafficking in America. The National Human Trafficking Hotline received reports identifying 16,554 victims of human trafficking in 2021—but this number includes only those cases reported to the hotline. Estimates of how many individuals are being trafficked in the US range anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands.

The US legal definition of human trafficking is: “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or labor against their will.” In other words: slavery. Since 2016, the number of global victims of this form of slavery has increased by 12%, with an estimated 27.6 million victims in 2022 alone. This is a function of increasing poverty due to war, climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and other factors.

In 2022, 23% of all victims worldwide were trafficked for sex, with 77% of victims trafficked for labor. More than half of all human trafficking occurs in wealthy countries. However, in the US, the Department of Justice secured only 13 convictions related to labor trafficking and 200 convictions for sex trafficking in 2021. The discrepancy between sex and labor trafficking in the US is likely due to greater awareness of sex trafficking and underreporting of labor trafficking. Regardless, the number of convictions is pitiful compared to the number of reports made to the national hotline each year.

Whether the perpetrator is a company like Signal International, a small business like a restaurant, or an individual like a pimp, the driving factor behind the enslavement of people is profit. Some rely on slave labor to avoid paying workers living wages, others profit as middlemen who find and sell the pool of forced labor.

Kibumba refugee camp Rwanda
In times of war or after climate disasters, the rates of human trafficking rise along with the desperation of the most downtrodden in those countries. / Image: SUPPORT HOPE, Picryl

Under capitalism, organized crime flourishes off of poverty and the anarchy of the market. As workers and poor people sink deeper into economic instability, many business owners look to increase profits by getting the cheapest labor possible, provided by trafficking cartels. On the other side of the equation, people fall victim to human trafficking due to conditions of extreme misery. Trafficking is most rampant in the poorest corners of the world, where victims have no other choice but to accept job offers that turn out to be recruitment into slavery. In times of war or after climate disasters, the rates of human trafficking rise along with the desperation of the most downtrodden in those countries.

Likewise, in the US, the most impoverished and vulnerable layers of society are those that fall victim to human trafficking, such as drug addicts or children without family support. This is why, internationally, 88% of human trafficking victims are women and children.

While much of human trafficking takes place in poorer nations, many of these crimes have an international scope, with the implication of imperialist nations. Human trafficking is one of the most profitable criminal enterprises. As with drug trafficking or the arms trade, it is often conducted by international cartels. National boundaries protect these cartels, and imperialism creates the inequality that supplies both desperate victims and a base of customers. It is often the case that American companies pay international recruiters, or traffickers, to supply them with forced laborers.

Human Trafficking protest, NYC, 10/19/19
In the final analysis, it is not in the interest of the capitalist state to systematically pursue labor trafficking crimes. / Image: Victoria Pickering, Flickr

Notably, many massage parlors that traffic people for labor operate collectively, almost like chain organizations. When one storefront is busted, the parlor manager may be prosecuted, but the owners are often hiding behind shell corporations that are impossible to track down and prosecute. Like a game of whack-a-mole, as soon as one parlor is closed, another one opens down the street. The illicit massage industry is estimated to profit $3 billion a year. The FBI simply does not have the resources—or the incentive—to investigate human trafficking cartels beyond individual shop managers.

In the final analysis, it is not in the interest of the capitalist state to systematically pursue labor trafficking crimes. Capitalism is based on the ruthless exploitation of labor, including victims of labor trafficking. If the national government was really concerned with human trafficking in the US, the best place to start investigating would be their own guest worker programs. According to statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, between 2018 and 2020, 92% of labor trafficking victims were foreign nationals, and 72% were brought into the US legally through a visa program.

Law enforcement agencies may clamp down on some of the worst excesses, or those that make it into the media, but these investigations serve to maintain a semblance of control rather than protect victims in any substantial way. In reality, many victims of sex trafficking are arrested on charges of prostitution, while many immigrant victims of trafficking are deported. A survey found that 91% of trafficking survivors had been arrested. The fear of law enforcement is one of the main reasons victims remain silent.

For example, in the Signal International case, the workers experienced repression by many law enforcement officers. In particular, an ICE officer who was assigned to their case actively hampered the investigation because he was being paid off by Signal International. When the workers organized their march to DC, dozens of police rounded up the party and tried to intimidate them into ending their protest early.

There are endless stories of human trafficking victims facing oppression by the law. In 1995, Sara Kruzan was convicted to life in prison at the age of 17 for murdering the man who enslaved her. In 2004, Cyntoia Brown, a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim who killed one of her rapists, was tried as an adult and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Pieper Lewis, a 15-year-old sex trafficking victim, was arrested in 2020 and sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing one of her rapists. If these accounts aren’t damning enough, according to a compilation of international studies from anti-trafficking advocate Noy Thrupkaew, on average, 40% of sex trafficking victims said they had been raped by the police in the previous year alone.

Alexander Acosta
Former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta struck a deal with Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 over sex-trafficking charges, and later proposed an 80% cut to funding for investigations of human trafficking. / Image: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

At the same time, we see how politicians and capitalists with connections to human trafficking avoid any accountability. For example, Florida State Representative Matt Gaetz has been accused of having a relationship with a 17-year-old victim of human trafficking, yet has escaped charges. Former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta struck a deal with Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 over sex-trafficking charges, and later proposed an 80% cut to funding for the International Labor Affairs Bureau which investigates human trafficking violations.

The bourgeois state and its bodies of armed men have one fundamental role: protecting private property and capitalist profits—whether those profits are legally sanctioned or not. There can be no illusions in the capitalist political institutions to substantially improve the situation. Human trafficking is the product of a sick system, based on exploitation, oppression, and private ownership of the means of production and society’s wealth. The only way to end it once and for all is with the overthrow of capitalism itself.

In a socialist society on the road to communism, the poverty that makes people vulnerable to human trafficking would vanish. By expropriating and collectively managing the means of production, the working class can put society’s vast wealth at the service of humanity, to provide for all basic needs: from affordable quality housing and food, to free universal healthcare, education, and more. Replacing capitalist interests and the free market with a rational, democratic plan of production in the US—the belly of the beast of world capitalism—will be a colossal step forward toward ending the imperialist exploitation that drives the recruitment to human trafficking cartels.

The world has long been prepared for these changes. For over a century, humanity has had the productive capacity to adequately provide for everyone, setting the basis for the revolutionary transformation of society. Every year, protests and revolutions erupt around the world, expressing the readiness of the workers of the world for the end of capitalism. It is up to us to prepare by building the forces of communism to lead the socialist revolution and end this barbarism once and for all.

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