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Modern Slavery in Libya: One Battle in the War Against Forced Labor

“Big strong boys for farm work!”

“Four hundred.”

“Seven hundred.”

“Eight hundred!”

In the end, the three enslaved people are sold for 1,200 Libyan dinars, or $800.

CNN recently published cell phone video of a Libyan slave auction. Sub-Saharan African men, mainly from West African nations like Nigeria, Niger, and Mali, stand in collared shirts as they’re bid on in Arabic, and they walk a few steps to join other newly enslaved men once sold. The report counts nine auctions of enslaved people throughout Libya, but notes that more likely exist.

The release of the video last week prompted global outrage. President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger recalled his government’s ambassador to Libya and demanded that the International Court of Justice investigate the North African slave trade. Burkina Faso summoned Libya’s ambassador to Ouagadougou, and the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for an “urgent” meeting of the United Nations Security Council to address the treatment of migrants in the region. Protests erupted outside Libyan embassies in the capital cities of several African and European nations, including Bamako, Conakry, and Paris.

Migrants making their way through Libya face great danger and horrendous conditions. Libya is often the point of departure for Africans seeking haven in Europe, and hundreds of thousands of people have poured into the country in recent years. Seven hundred thousand African migrants are in Libya today, according to UN estimates, and many face starvation, dehydration, and physical abuse at the hands of the smugglers charged with transporting them through North Africa and across the Mediterranean. Enslavement, according to Mohammed Abdiker, the director of operation and emergencies for the International Organization for Migration, “can be added to a long list of outrages” endangering migrants.  

But slavery is not a distinctly Libyan practice. Over forty million people are enslaved worldwide, and the practice persists in every nation. Contemporary slavery takes various forms, including domestic servitude, sex trafficking, and forced marriage, but the version most similar to American chattel slavery is forced labor. Forced labor, according to End Slavery Now, an anti-slavery organization, supports “many products in our global supply chains,” especially in the fishing, textile, construction, mineral, and agriculture industries. The International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million people globally are trapped in forced labor, and the Department of State estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 of these cases occur in the United States. Though that figure is the most recent official estimate, the actual number of enslaved people is likely higher.

Slavery is as much an issue within the United States as it is elsewhere in the world. The Atlantic recently published a cover story entitled “My Family’s Slave,” an account of the life of Eudocia “Lola” Pulido, a woman from the Philippines who worked without pay for 56 years in the author’s home in the Pacific Northwest. The story is emblematic of a common form of modern American slavery: exploitation of foreign workers whose immigration status is tied to their employment.

This dependence creates a power imbalance between employers and foreign workers who come to the United States under one of the six temporary visas that Polaris, an anti-human-trafficking organization, has identified as “commonly associated with labor exploitation and trafficking,” the A-3, B-1, G-5, H-2A, H-2B and J-1 visa categories. These particular visas are so dangerous to workers and place them at high risk for enslavement because they make it almost impossible to retain legal immigration status after leaving the employer who sponsored the visa petition. Therefore, with relative ease, employers of workers on these visas can steal wages, confiscate passports, physically and emotionally abuse and enslave.

There seems to be little political will to constructively address contemporary slavery in the United States. Immigration reform is a perennial non-starter in Congress, and any change to American immigration law giving more employment independence to “unskilled” immigrant workers would likely face fierce resistance from opponents of immigration. In fact, this May, Congress granted the Department of Homeland Security discretion to expand the H-2B visa program, one of the slavery-prone categories flagged by Polaris for binding workers to their employers.

The United States does not, generally, punish employers who enslave their workers. The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the U.S. government for failing to implement basic safeguards against trafficking and enslavement, and the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report rarely, if ever, effectively pushes the government to do more to end the practices. Buzzfeed reported that the Department of Labor kicked fewer than 15% of abusive employers out of the H-2 visa program, though it found program violations in 88% of the cases it investigated.

Globally, too, slavery is a rarely prosecuted crime. For instance, though 20% of the Mauritanian population is enslaved, the nation has only ever prosecuted one person for the practice of it since criminalizing it in 2007. And it remains to be seen what justice and protection enslaved people in Libya will receive, though, promisingly, the United Nations Security Council is considering imposing sanctions on responsible individuals.

All forms of slavery are horrific, and organizations like the Walk Free Foundation and the Polaris Project should be supported in their anti-slavery work. But not all forms of slavery can be seen. Modern slavery exists all around us, in every city and town in the United States, in our hotels and farms and factories. Whether through a nighttime auction in a suburb of Tripoli or a confiscated passport in a suburb of Seattle, slavery exists today wherever it can.