2020 has been an unprecedented year for many communities across the world as we face the impact of COVID-19. Families that come from low economic backgrounds are losing their employment with no way of maintaining a stable income. Many are also faced with the instability in accessing proper healthcare due to their migration status.

However, COVID-19 is not the only pandemic we are facing. We are also working to overcome a much longer-standing virus: racism. Since the murder of George Floyd, the world could no longer turn a blind eye to systemic racism and its impact on black and brown communities.

Combatting racism is clearly in the jurisdiction of human rights and human trafficking, however, the work to fight racism isn’t always taken up by the anti-slavery movement. Historically, people of color have always been faced with the systemic vulnerability against slavery. Racism is imbedded within the slavery system due to the fact that black and brown bodies were and are still viewed to be inferior allowing for abuse and exploitation to be accepted.

There are many risk factors that could lead to a person being vulnerable to human trafficking and modern slavery.  Due to the systemic oppression imbedded within systems across the globe, a person is made vulnerable to due to their multifaceted statuses and identities.

Due to discrimination, individuals are made vulnerable on the grounds of their gender, sexual orientation, ableism, and migration status, amongst other social identities. However, what is obvious is that race is often not included within the analysis when it comes to vulnerability to human rights violations. The United States has systematically separated the issue of racism. Perhaps framing it as a civil rights issue and not a human rights issue, stops it from being included in the conversation of international human rights.  Fighting racism is only really recognized fully on national days, like Juneteenth or MLK day.

Many NGOs and companies have recently come forward in solidarity to fight against racial discrimination. We need to ask, is race an issue we are looking at as separately or are we properly mainstreaming and eradicating it in our daily work against modern slavery and human rights, internally as well as externally?

In order to sufficiently identify, analyze, and understand how people are made vulnerable to exploitation due to racial discrimination, we must acknowledge, accept and address the systemic racism black and brown communities face in all aspects of their life. Within the human rights and anti-slavery community, we should not separate our fight for racial justice but embed it within our approach to advocacy and systematic change. We need to recognize all identities within a community, taking into account how society’s treatment based on their gender, race, migration status and gender orientation are exploited.  This vulnerability can be greater where multiple discriminated identities are present. We cannot compartmentalize.

The lack of proper analysis of these intersecting identities leaves many issues forgotten, and it hinders real change, often times impacting people of color. One example is the issue of modern slavery within the U.S. prison system.  The 13th Amendment is a prime example of how racism is embedded into the system to continue to oppress people of color even though we are told slavery has been formally eradicated.

Prison exploitation linked to racial discrimination has been present since the establishment of the American prison system. It is still an issue we are fighting against because it heavily impacts black and brown communities since they are the most vulnerable to exploitative practices of the institutional and the social American systems.  You cannot separate the strong link between slavery and racism.

The United States’s 13th Amendment of the Constitution includes language that allows slavery to be legal through penal labor.  Under the current laws, black and brown communities are being directly trafficked into the prison system for labor exploitation due to high policing and incarceration.

Some prison work programs are covered up with fallacies and smoky mirrors following the narrative that these programs are in place for rehabilitation, which is true in some cases, but in order to properly rehabilitate an individual, they must be compensated fairly for their labor.

One of the core problems within prison labor programs comes in the form of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) where private companies have contracts with government-run prisons.  While they must pay prisoners the prevailing wage, the government can  deduct up to 80% of their  wages, meaning they work for almost no pay, creating an economic incentive for this system and an incentive to keep incarceration rates high.  This is a form of modern slavery in which they are coercing people to work for little or no pay.

If we are able to mainstream our fight against racial discrimination and the exploitation of black and brown communities, the fight can be mainstreamed in the anti-trafficking and human rights movement.

You can learn more about Freedom United’s campaign against forced prison labor here.

Herrana Addisu is an Advocacy Officer at Freedom United

Photo credit: Mike McMillan