The fight against human trafficking in the US is not yet won. On the contrary, it is a problem that affects us all and deserves our attention. This was the message sent by the launch of the Senate Caucus to end Human Trafficking last Wednesday. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rob Portman (R-OH) were joined by special guest Jada Pinkett Smith and two survivors of human trafficking at this well-attended event in order to officially announce the forming of this new group committed to end modern-day slavery.
In his welcome address Senator Blumenthal, the initiator of the Caucus, happily declared that already 13 senators, coming from both parties, had joined the Caucus. He recalled the abhorrent nature and the tremendous scale of the problem and stressed the point that human trafficking also involves US citizens and local communities. He acknowledged that the Caucus is “standing on shoulders of others”, namely the efforts that led to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Regarding the still pending re-authorization of this central legal tool in the fight against human trafficking, he promised that he and his colleagues were working hard to re-authorize the TVPA “as soon as possible”.
In the near future, the Caucus plans to work on the passage of the End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act (S. 2234), a bill that was introduced earlier this year by Senators Blumenthal and Portman and that is intended to stop human trafficking and forced labor practices at government contractors and subcontractors who operate overseas.
Senator Rob Portman, in his address, said that one of the main goals of the Caucus will be to raise the profile of the issue and to show that human trafficking is a problem that “affects us at home”. He underlined the importance of the End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act calling for “zero tolerance” for coercive and exploitative labor practices. Both senators stressed the importance of law enforcement and criminal justice in fighting human trafficking, but also made reference to the need to safeguard the human rights of victims.
Another item on the agenda is to stop the advertisement and promotion of human trafficking and prostitution on the Internet by adult service sites like backpage.com. It is notable that this particular strategy is controversial in the anti-trafficking advocacy field: some service providers are critical of government spending limited resources targeting advertisements (which include non-trafficked, adult sex workers) rather than addressing root causes and correcting failures in social service systems that leave people vulnerable to human trafficking. Investments in shelter beds, economic relief, and preventative youth programs are seen as a more effective means to ending human trafficking of youth than sweeping anti-prostitution tactics.
We urge the Caucus to commit to addressing human trafficking in all its complexity and to devote equal attention to its different forms. Given the current tendencies to reduce human trafficking in the U.S. to the sexual exploitation of minors and women, we want to remind the Caucus that human trafficking also happens for the purpose of labor exploitation here in the United States. Aside from the world of government contracts, migrant laborers here in the US are particularly vulnerable whether they are agricultural workers, domestic workers, restaurant workers, or construction workers. Focusing on traditional “vice” strategies that look at drugs, prostitution, and organized crime will not aid in identifying these types of victims.
At the time of this writing, a long-standing leader and the champion of the Senate’s efforts to pass the TVPRA, Senator Leahy (D-VT), was not a member of the Caucus, which raises questions. While Break the Chain welcomes the efforts of the Senate Caucus to raise awareness and to build a strong political cross-party coalition in the fight against modern-day slavery, we are concerned that the Caucus might take away from the central work that needs to be done on behalf of all survivors of human trafficking. The fact Senator Leahy and Senator Harkin (D-IA), two of the Senate leaders on human rights, immigrant rights, and worker rights are not on the leadership of this new Caucus gives us pause. Above all, we think the government focus should center on human trafficking in all its forms, and government interventions should be truly survivor-centered and elevate prevention and social, legal, and immigration relief above prosecution/criminalization strategies. Whether Senator Leahy and Senator Harkin will be welcomed and join this Caucus will be seen shortly.
- Joscha Schwarzwaelder, Break the Chain Campaign Advocacy Intern