US among 17 countries that practice forced labor, a form of slavery, report finds

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1865, with one exception: forced labor in prisons.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime the party of which has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States,” it read.

Nearly 160 years later, the United States is one of 17 countries that still impose compulsory labor, according to a report released this week by Walk Free, an Australian human rights organization, in collaboration with the International Labor Organization and the United Nations International Organization. for migration.

The category encompasses state-sanctioned forced labor in armies, fields, factories, and prisons. In many US prisons, inmates are forced to work for wages well below minimum wage and without other legal protections.

Types of state-imposed labor vary – from prisons, both state and federal, public and private, as in the United States, to the widespread use of labor camps and the abuse of conscripts in highly repressive countries. such as North Korea and Eritrea.

The report, a global census of modern slavery based on 2021 data, finds evidence of state-imposed forced labor in Belarus, Brazil, China, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mongolia, in Myanmar, Poland, Russia, Rwanda, Turkmenistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

Under international law, governments can require people to work under certain conditions, such as conscription and states of emergency. But “a state exceeds these limits when it compels citizens to work as a punishment for expressing or acting on political opinions, or for purposes of economic development, or as a means of racial, ethnic, social or religious discrimination.” standards summarized in the report.

Worldwide, government authorities forced some 3.9 million people into labor in 2021 – among around 50 million people enslaved to involuntary labor or marriage, according to the report.

Estimates are likely understated because “modern slavery” often remains hidden and taboo to discuss, said Jacqueline Larsen, Walk Free’s deputy director and head of global research. The report covers 160 countries. Some, like Yemen and Syria, are too dangerous to fully access. The analysis uses the term “modern slavery” to encompass legal concepts prohibiting “exploitative situations that a person cannot refuse or leave due to threats, violence, coercion, deception and/or abuse of power “.

The index offers a conservative estimate that 1 in 150 people are enslaved worldwide. The figure rises to 1 in 130 for women and girls. The index found the highest slavery rates in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Kuwait, Mauritania, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

More than half of those enslaved live in G-20 countries, a bloc made up of the world’s wealthiest economies, according to the report. G-20 countries import an estimated $468 billion annually in products at risk of slave labor, including electronics, clothing and solar panels, according to the report.

Although these are estimates, the figures aim to underline how pervasive modern slavery remains in all regions of the world, through debt bondage, human trafficking, forced marriage and involuntary labor, Larsen said.

Within these broader categories, state-imposed labor “is one of the forms of modern slavery that could be dealt with relatively quickly because it is state policy,” she said. declared.

The report highlights three main types of forced state labour. The mistreatment of detainees – in Belarus, Brazil, China, Libya, North Korea, Poland, Russia, Turkmenistan, the United States, Vietnam and Zimbabwe – accounts for more than half of the reports analyzed.

About a quarter of the cases relate to the abuse of conscripts, in countries such as Eritrea, Egypt, Mali and Mongolia. About 17% involve people forced to work for the economic gain of the state, such as forced cotton picking in Turkmenistan, or cases where Myanmar forces ethnic minorities to work for the military or other authorities.

The slavery index does not rank countries on the prevalence of forced state labor due to a lack of sufficient data, Larsen said, although North Korea and Eritrea, which are at the top of the global slavery index, are probably the worst offenders.

Eritrea has compulsory – and indefinite – conscription for all males between the ages of 18 and 40. According to a 2015 report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, “the indefinite duration of national service, its terrible conditions – including arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labor, lack of leave and derisory remuneration… make national service an institution where slavery-like practices are commonplace.

In North Korea, an estimated one in 10 people are enslaved, most forced to work by the state, according to the report and other UN findings.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. A 2022 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that about two-thirds of inmates in public and private facilities, or about 800,000 people, were forced to work. Many were punished for refusal. Nationally, prisoners earn an average pre-tax hourly wage of 52 cents, and in some states nothing, while producing billions of dollars in goods and services for prisons, according to the ACLU.

“The roots of modern prison labor are found in the ratification of this exception clause at the end of the Civil War, which disproportionately encouraged the criminalization and effective re-enslavement of black people in the Jim Crow era, with impacts that persist until now. day,” the ACLU found in a 2022 report.

Proponents of compulsory prison labor in the United States argue that the practice is constitutional, offsets prison costs, and helps reintegrate prisoners into working life.

Of the 17 countries accused of forcing people to work, the United States ranks first in the index’s list of counties moving toward reform. For the United States, these efforts are complicated by the country’s decentralized system of federal, state and private prisons. In the 2022 midterm elections, Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont voted to outlaw prison labor in their state constitutions, joining a handful of others.

Court cases challenging involuntary prison labor are ongoing in several states. A 2020 lawsuit filed by the NAACP against the state of Arizona accused it of sending prisoners to private prisons to “generate revenue and profits for the monetary benefit of business owners, shareholders and the general direction”.

Overall, the practice of “modern slavery” is not decreasing. Since Walk Free’s previous assessment in 2018, an estimated 10 million more people have been enslaved around the world.

The increase has occurred “against a backdrop of growing and more complex conflicts, widespread environmental degradation, climate-induced migration, a global rollback of women’s rights, and the economic and social impacts of covid-19 pandemic,” according to the 2021 report.

“It’s a problem we created,” Larsen said. “So it’s well within our power to fix that.”

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