President Obama on Modern Day Slavery

On Tuesday, President Obama gave a speech on human trafficking at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) conference that no doubt elevated the priority of this policy in a way that only a presidential speech can. He gave an impassioned plea to end the scourge of human trafficking, remarking that children younger than his daughters are sold into servitude.

President Obama used all the right words, noting that a better term for human trafficking is modern day slavery, and drawing historical parallels to slavery in the U.S.  The President also accurately noted that human trafficking is a problem across the globe, including in the U.S.

What President Obama failed to mention in his speech is that, despite having the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act since 2000, anti-trafficking efforts in the U.S. have been an abysmal failure. Investigations are open on fewer than 3% of estimated cases, and, according to two whistle blowers, the FBI has practices in place that discourage agents from investigating human trafficking cases. But it’s difficult to get a real handle on anti-human trafficking efforts in America since the FBI is unusually stingy with data on this crime. At least one member of congress has called upon the FBI to release its human trafficking data.

During his speech, President Obama announced a new Executive Order that requires greater accountability from government contractors. The law moves us one step closer to addressing labor slavery, but does nothing to address the most common form of trafficking — sexual exploitation  (79% of trafficking worldwide). In fact, throughout his speech, I was struck by the President’s overt emphasis on manual labor trafficking over sex trafficking in the many examples he furnished. (Both types of slavery are heinous, and this discussion is not meant to suggest otherwise.) Whether his intention was to avoid the graphic nature of sex slavery or focus on the type of slavery that is addressed by his Executive Order, President Obama left viewers with a misleading impression of the problem.

My last quibble with the President’s speech is that he twice understated the problem by claiming that 20 million people were in modern day slavery worldwide. His own State Department estimates put the number at 28 million, while critics show that U.S. and global statistics are likely underestimates.

It is a wonderful day when the President of the United States raises awareness about such a pressing social ill. It would be more wonderful if the actions of his Administration matched his elegant words.

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