Modern slavery can affect people of any gender, age, ethnicity, or race. However today on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Freedom United is raising awareness of the critical link between racial discrimination and forms of modern slavery. Modern slavery thrives upon existing structures of racial inequality that are already deeply present in the global system. This inherent power imbalance creates an opportunity for vulnerable communities to be exploited.
Across the Middle East, where the kafala visa sponsorship system thrives, migrant workers are legally bound to their employers through their immigration status. In Lebanon, this facilitates forced labor in the form of domestic work, which is almost exclusively done by migrant women of color from Ethiopia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Many domestic workers that migrate to the Middle East are from backgrounds that are traditionally discriminated against, making them vulnerable to modern slavery.
The systemic xenophobia and deep-set societal norms of racial discrimination make it almost ‘permissable’ for brown and black workers to be exploited, in ways as extreme as to be criminal. This practice creates an environment where treating workers poorly due to their race is somehow seen as acceptable. This structural norm has allowed for thousands of brown and black women to suffer under the control of their employer. These migrants are often tricked by traffickers into paying large sums of money with the promise of decent work to support their families back home.
They are trapped in exploitative labor conditions and are subjected to xenophobia, sexism, and physical abuse. Migrant workers under the kafala system require the employer’s consent to leave the country, and also requires employers to gain possession of their passports, making it much more difficult for them to escape an abusive employer. In fact, the high levels of racial discrimination and exploitation in Lebanon has led to the creation of grassroots organizations such as the Anti-Racism Movement to help stop this abuse.
One the most recently reported cases exposing the relationship between racial discrimination and modern slavery is the state-led forced labor of the Turkic Uyghur population in China. This Muslim minority is forced to work in Chinese factories producing mainly US products from iPhone cameras to Nike sneakers. It has been reported that these factories in Xinjiang are housed within fenced-in internment camps and that Uyghurs essentially have no choice but to work at these jobs and accept orders from the Chinese government.
At these factories, Uyghurs are subjected to constant surveillance, limited freedom of movement, isolation in segregated dormitories, and if they refuse to work, the threat of arbitrary detention hangs over them.
In the United States, the vast majority of trafficked victims reported and identified are women and girls of color from at-risk communities. Black women are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking because they are more likely to face poverty, and as a result, are more likely to be disconnected from community support. 
Modern slavery and xenophobia play a key role within the farming industry in the United States. Temporary workers that are trafficked into forced labor are also almost exclusively people of color from South America. These temporary migrant workers are often recruited from remote impoverished villages in Mexico through third-party foreign labor contractors to enter California farms.
Unscrupulous foreign labor contractors threaten workers with blacklisting, discrimination, and other forms of retaliation, including the imposition of additional fees in relation to their temporary work visas. These workers are also threatened with violence against them, their family members, or their home communities for reporting abuses they endure. They are often confined to one single employer who they depend on for work visas, food, and shelter, making it very difficult for them to escape their circumstances.
California state legislators tried to address the issue in 2014 by regulating foreign labor contractors with Senate Bill 477 (SB477), but because of an error with its incorporation into existing farmworker regulations, the bill’s protections exclude 97% of temporary workers, including farmworkers.
Freedom United is working with our partners at the Coalition Against Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) to lobby for the legislative change that would be needed to amend the bill so it covers all temporary workers in California.
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