Forced labor remains startling in U.S.

(Xinhua) 16:08, July 19, 2022

WASHINGTON, July 18 (Xinhua) -- Founded on slavery, the United States still has a startling record of forced labor across the nation nowadays, especially in prisons.

Forced labor occurs when individuals are compelled against their will to provide work or service through the use of force, fraud or coercion, and "it does occur in the United States," said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Victims of forced labor in the United States can be citizens, or people originating from almost every region of the world, regardless of whether they have entered the country with or without legal status, the DHS said.


Forced labor is common in prions throughout the United States since penal labor is explicitly allowed by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Among more than 1.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. state and federal prisons, two out of three are also workers, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Prison laborers in the United States are at the mercy of their employers. With no assurance of minimum wage and overtime protections, no access to union or adequate training and equipment, they have no choice about work assignments and are denied workplace safety guarantees despite often dangerous working conditions, read a comprehensive nationwide report released last month by the University of Chicago Law School's Global Human Rights Clinic and the ACLU.

"The labor conditions of incarcerated workers in many U.S. prisons violate the most fundamental human rights to life and dignity," said Claudia Flores, director of the Global Human Rights Clinic.

"In any other workplace, these conditions would be shocking and plainly unlawful," Flores continued. "The many incarcerated workers we interviewed told us story after story of inadequate equipment and training, punishments doled out if workers refused to labor, and an overall helplessness to a government institution functioning as both jailer and boss."

"The U.S. prison system claims to offer rehabilitation to its population, but prison labor programs do just the opposite: they degrade, dehumanize and further cripple incarcerated workers," said Mariana Olaizola Rosenblat, a fellow at the Global Human Rights Clinic.

Malcolm Alexander was 20 years old when he was arrested and sent to pick cotton in a maximum-security prison farm in the southern U.S. state of Louisiana known as "Angola," according to Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization committed to exonerating individuals who have been wrongly convicted.

On the first morning at "Angola," Malcolm marched to the cotton field in a row with other mostly African American men, bookended by armed men on horseback. "It was like you see in old pictures of slavery," he recalled.

"We even had a quota we had to meet at the end of the day," Malcolm said if their quota wasn't sufficiently finished by day's end, they would be reportedly written up, meaning losing out on weekend privileges or even being sent to solitary confinement.


America has a long history of slavery. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database showed that between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the "New World," and the majority of the captives came to what became the United States.

The African slaves were forced to work under harsh conditions and tortured by white owners. Now the human-rights-deprived laborers are beyond Africans.

In privately managed detention centers across the United States, coerced labor is commonplace. In 2019, The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California certified multiple classes of detained immigrants who alleged claims of forced labor and wage theft against the GEO Group, a large for-profit prison company.

One class accused GEO of violating state law by paying detainees only 1 U.S. dollar a day for their labor while two classes alleged that the firm violated federal and state law by compelling detained immigrants to work.

In public prisons, most states pay incarcerated workers pennies per hour for their work while several states pay nothing for the vast majority of prison work though incarcerated workers across the country produce at least 2 billion dollars in goods and 9 billion dollars worth of prison maintenance services annually, showed the joint report by the University of Chicago Law School and the ACLU.


In the United States, even children may fall victim to forced labor. Under the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), children above age 12 can legally work unlimited hours on farms of any size with parental permission under some conditions. There is no minimum age for children working on small farms or family farms.

"Children as young as 12 are being hired to do backbreaking work on U.S. farms, at risk of serious injuries, heat stroke, pesticide poisoning, and even death," said Margaret Wurth, a researcher at U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch.

According to official statistics, in 2019 alone, U.S. law enforcement officers found 858 cases of child labor in violation of the FLSA. In 2012 alone, at least 1,800 U.S. children were injured during farming. Between 2003 and 2016, more than half of U.S. child deaths in the workplace occurred in agriculture-related accidents.

The approximately 500,000 child farmworkers estimated by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity programs cannot push for reform on their own because they are not entitled to vote -- the only tool the public has to influence the government's agenda, thus their affliction endures. 

(Web editor: Peng Yukai, Hongyu)


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