Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Exceptions to the Rule

The US has enacted both federal and state legislation to combat trafficking, and the US also has ostensibly made a financial commitment to ending slavery in the US and around the world. At the same time, however, a number of "exceptions to the rules" in US policies and practices create situations where slavery and exploitation can flourish. Intricate and contradictory visa policies and industries that are exempt from certain labor laws can help slavery go undetected.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, "Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") in 1935 to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy." This act was key to bringing fair labor conditions to workers, and is an important source of protection for workers today. However, as Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter point out in their recent book The Slave Next Door, farmworkers and domestics are excluded from its protections (263).

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers states that "Unlike laborers in other industries, agricultural laborers are not covered by the NLRA so the growers who employ them are under no obligation to dialogue with worker representatives. And workers have no recourse to the National Labor Relations Board if they are fired or discriminated against for raising issues with their employers." This exception for farmworkers results in a situation where workers have little recourse and trafficking can more easily occur.

I have written before about a particular egregious exception to the rule, when diplomatic immunity shields diplomats from the consequences of keeping a domestic slave. Bales and Soodalter argue, however, that other polices relating to domestic workers make these people particularly vulnerable, whether they are employed by a diplomat or not. First, as noted earlier, like farmworkers, domestic workers are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act.

Second, depending on the type of visa they hold, domestic workers face very different situations. Bales and Soodalter point out that J-1 visa holders, who largely are young, educated, middle-class European women, have a greater system of protections in place, from a mandatory orientation, formal networks with other workers in her area, mandatory sessions with her employers and a counselor each month, background checks on employers, and strict regulations about hours, pay, and working conditions (36). Holders of A-3 or G-5 visas. who are more likely to come from impoverished backgrounds, have no such protections.

Moreover, workers who hold A-3 or G-5 visas are "permit[ed]. . . to work only for that one employer [who sponsored the visa]," according to the Break the Chain Campaign. The Break the Chain Campaign, which works on behalf of domestic workers' rights in the DC area, goes on to note that "A domestic servant who leaves the employ of her official sponsor is considered “out of status” by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and is subject to deportation." Thus, though under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act threat of deportation is considered a form of coercion, for many domestic workers this threat is very real, making them especially vulnerable to exploitation and slavery.

I find such exceptions uniquely frustrating. On the one hand, expanding the National Labor Relations Act to cover domestic workers and farmworkers, and changing visa policies to protect all guest workers is possible. The frame works are in place, all we need is the political will. On the other hand, I know that any efforts in this area will likely face extreme opposition.

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