In April, about 50 social justice advocates gathered in South Texas to call for worker dignity and rights, as well as ending human trafficking. In this opinion essay, Héctor Guzmán López, a participant, sheds light on their movement-building efforts.
Slavery, unfortunately, is not a relic of barbaric practices of the past that gave birth to modern societies. Forced labor, coerced sexual exploitation and marriage against a person’s will are still generated by economic and social practices in the 21st century.
In 2016, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there were 40.3 million slaves in the world, at any given moment. Of that amount, 24.9 million were in forced labor, including sexual exploitation, and 15.4 million were in marriages against their will.
Consider it this way: Out of every 1,000 people, about six are victims of modern-day slavery, according to the ILO, and children make up 1 in 4 modern-day slaves.
Of the 24.9 million people trapped in forced labor, 16 million are exploited in the private sector, including domestic work, construction and agriculture, 4.8 million are sexually exploited and 4 million are in forced labor imposed by governments.
The exploitation in human trafficking is well documented and part of the supply chain that makes the modern world turn. Our economies, societies and way of life, unfortunately, benefit from these circumstances. Following Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspiring vision, freedom is desperately needed.
We can only make progress for workers in forced labor, as well as their families and children, by addressing this topic as a group. Then, we can discuss the need for freedom and justice in public and call for positive change.
To that end, for the 13th year, the Women’s Studies Committee at South Texas College (STC) hosted a Symposium on Human Trafficking during the week of April 23, in this desperate search for freedom. The Women’s Studies Committee is composed of faculty at STC, faculty from the Criminal Justice Department at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, students and honorary community members such as Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center.
This year’s symposium was titled “Mas Alla de la Frontera: Global Responses to Human Trafficking.” It consisted of over 50 presenters involved in fighting and exposing human trafficking, worker exploitation or defending migrant rights.
Among the presenters this year were Oscar Martinez, from the renowned international award-winning Salvadoran online paper El Faro. His work puts a spotlight on the incredible violence in El Salvador, with homicide rates three times as high as Mexico – which Oscar stated they would consider those homicide rates as peace. Oscar spoke on why people are living, which is further elaborated in his book The History of Violence.
The symposium also featured representatives from workers’ rights organizations, who are at the frontlines of movement building and strengthening community power to achieve workplace justice and combat exploitation and modern-day slavery.
Representatives of Damayan Migrant Workers Association, the National Guestworkers Alliance out of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers touched on modern-day slavery involving farmworkers, domestic workers and guest workers in the United States.
Damayan is one of several anchor organizations of the Beyond Survival Campaign of affiliated organizations with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center in South Texas also is an anchor of this campaign along with other workers’ rights organizations like the Miami Workers Center, the Labor Justice Committee in El Paso, the Pilipino Workers’ Centers in Los Angeles, Adhikaar in New York City, Matahari Womens’ Worker Center in Boston, Domesticas Unidas in San Antonio and Casa de Maryland and Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a farmworker organization that began organizing in the mid-1990s and has unified Haitian, Guatemalan and Mexican migrant farmworkers in the struggle to better the labor conditions and lives of farmworkers in southeast Florida.
Through their labor organizing, the CIW has been instrumental in exposing and aiding the prosecution of nine modern-day slavery cases in the agriculture industry in Florida and has helped free over 1,200 farmworker working against their will.
The National Guestworkers Alliance has, as part of its vision, the belief that, “Guestworkers are protagonists in a vibrant social movement to expand the right to organize for all excluded workers, reversing a long legacy of retaliation against workers of color who organize to win dignity and freedom.”
NGA has exposed several labor trafficking cases involving guestworkers, including:
- Hundreds of pipefitters and welders from India who worked at Signal International in Pascagoula, Mississippi and who won $14 million in a labor trafficking case decided in 2015, according to The Times-Picayune.
- International student guestworkers who reported working up to 25-hour, nonstop shifts with no overtime pay at McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania. They also endured threats and substandard housing, as Salon reported. Some workers protested their conditions by going on strike. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a settlement of nearly $206,000 in back pay.
The South Texas symposium aimed to sow seeds of freedom by raising consciousness about human-rights violations involving the vulnerable, especially migrants and low-wage workers.
Every year, hundreds of people from various backgrounds attend this symposium. There are social workers, law enforcement officials, lawyers, human rights activists, workers, academics and students. This year over 250 people registered for the conference.
This type of movement building event elevates awareness, networking, and strengthens the capacity to fight oppression and expands the idea of dignity for all people. It also dispels myths and misconceptions.
Just as it always has in the United States and around the world, the struggle for freedom and equity continues each day. Coming together and working for solutions will always remain the way forward.
Héctor Guzmán López is coordinator for the Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center, an affiliate of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Portions of this opinion essay first appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian, a news publication that covers South Texas and the U.S.-Mexico border.