'Modern Day Slavery' - Implications of a Label

40 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2015

See all articles by Mary Graw Leary

Mary Graw Leary

Catholic University of America (CUA)

Date Written: 2015


Over the last decades much progress has been made in the fight against human trafficking. As with any social movement, divisions exists among activists and scholars on the most effective direction to execute social change. Often, these focus on language. One such critical discussion is whether it is appropriate to label human trafficking “Modern Day Slavery.” Although the term has existed for several years, the analogy gained a more full acceptance with its use by President Obama in September 2012 when he described “the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking which must be called by its true name -- modern slavery.” Questions remain, however, if it indeed must be called that, as the implications are significant.

This article argues in support of the position that modern day slavery is an apt label to use as analogy to human trafficking. Acknowledging its costs and imperfections, of which there are several, the label fulfills the goals of analogy because it is an accurate description of the practice of human trafficking and, most importantly the experience of so many victims. This is particularly true when one defines slavery beyond antebellum slavery to include the period of de facto slavery after the Civil War, in which peonage and debt bondage were the dominant exploitive institutions. Therefore, this article asserts that the label only can be embraced when slavery is defined in this way and when specifically focused on the victim/survivor experience.

However, this article also advances the argument that it is an analogy that has not fulfilled its promise to assist in explaining or characterizing the realities of human trafficking. It has failed to do so because its use so often stops there, with a simple sensational label that is unanalyzed, uncritiqued, and unrefined. Therefore, this article examines the implications of that label of modern day slavery to each of the stakeholders in the institution of human trafficking. By doing so, the true potential of this powerful but appropriate label is unlocked.

By examining it through the implications it has for the stakeholders of human trafficking: victims, traffickers, owners, and the bystanders, the article underscores the propriety of the label. Only when the label is fully embraced within this framework can its power be mastered to assist in transforming society from one that endorses and profits from ownership of people to one that rejects it in all its forms.

Suggested Citation

Graw Leary, Mary, 'Modern Day Slavery' - Implications of a Label (2015). St. Louis University Law Journal, Vol. 60, 2016, CUA Columbus School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2015-13, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2705550

Mary Graw Leary (Contact Author)

Catholic University of America (CUA) ( email )

116 McMahon Hall
Washington, DC 20064
United States

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