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Forced Labor, a stain on US human rights record

By Xin Ping | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2022-06-10 08:56

Photo taken on Nov. 23, 2021 shows the White House in Washington, DC, the United States. [Photo/Xinhua]

Posing as a “champion” of human rights, the US government has kept accusing other countries of “forced labor” in recent years and even threatened to impose unilateral sanctions in defiance of International Labour Organization (ILO) rules. To begin with, the accusations are based on sheer fabrication and lies. Moreover, forced labor has long been a social ill in the US itself and a dark secret in its human rights record.

Looking back at history, forced labor has been one of the darkest chapters of human rights in the US. Back in colonial times, it was through slavery, which expanded savagely across plantations, that the British colonists and post-independence Americans realized primitive accumulation of capital. Slaves were treated as the private property of plantation owners with no personal freedom to speak of. They were forced to labor under extremely harsh conditions, sweating on cotton, tobacco and other crops, which became important export products of the US In a way, it is slavery that paved the way for American modernization and rise to power.

One might think that forced labor was just part of the unspeakable past of the US If only that were true. In fact, forced labor is very much alive today in the richest nation on earth. In the past five years, cases of forced labor and human trafficking were reported across all the 50 states and Washington D.C. Up to 100,000 people are trafficked into the US for forced labor annually and half of them are sold to sweatshops or enslaved in households. According to the statistics of the US academic institutions, at least 500,000 people in the country have been subjected to modern slavery and forced labor in agriculture, construction, manufacturing and many other industries. The victims run across different vulnerable groups such as women, children and the disabled, and include not only US nationals, but also foreign citizens from almost every region of the world.

According to Anti-Slavery International, farm workers are “some of the poorest paid and most exploited workers within the US economy.” They earn an average of $10,000 a year and lack some of the basic rights that other American workers are guaranteed and entitled to, including the right to overtime pay. They usually work without health insurance, sick leave, pension or job security. Those conditions are “the fertile ground that gives rise to forced labor in US fields,” Anti-Slavery International says.

In 2015, one ILO report on special action against forced labor listed the US as one of the seven typical countries having this problem. The report noted the existence of forced labor at US farms, particularly among workers who were trafficked to the US from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti. Even the US State Department concedes that the US is a “source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, and sex trafficking”.

According to the statistics of US industry associations, there are approximately 500,000 child farm-workers in the US Many of these children started working as early as 8 years old, and would toil 72 hours per week. Compared with adults, children are more susceptible to the pesticides’ carcinogenic effects, and more than half of children occupational deaths occur in the agricultural sector. Between 2003 and 2016, 237 children died in farm-related work accidents in the US, four times the number of deaths of any other sector.

For years, the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) of ILO has been speaking out on the issue of child labor in the US It has repeatedly expressed concern about the excessive fatal injuries to children working on American farms and publicized detailed statistics on this matter, urging the US government to step up supervision of the use of child labor in agriculture.

However, forced labor issues have not been taken seriously enough by the US government. Although Barack Obama and Donald Trump both signed several executive orders to combat human trafficking and forced labor, and the US Congress passed the Victims of Human Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000, the situation of forced labor in the country has not fundamentally changed. As a matter of fact, forced labor is yet another testament to the inherent flaws and systemic shortcomings of the US political system which favors the rich and powerful.

The US has long been practicing “double standards” on labor rights, turning a blind eye to its poor domestic records while randomly pointing fingers at others. It has so far ratified the fewest core ILO conventions among the world’s major powers. In fact, it is the only country in the world that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). As has always been the case, the US applies and abides by international laws only when they serve its own political interests.

In most cases,the human right issue is just a political tool for the US to maintain its supremacy. Instead of continuing to manipulate labor issues against other countries, it is high time that the US reflect on and correct its own wrongdoings. The whole world is watching.

The author is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly  for CGTN, Global Times, Xinhua News Agency, etc.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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