History of unfree labor in the United States

The history of forced labor in the United States encompasses to all forms of unfree labor which have occurred within the present day borders of the United States through modern times. "Unfree labor" is a generic or collective term for those work relations, in which people are employed against their will by the threat of destitution, detention, violence (including death), lawful compulsion, or other extreme hardship to themselves or to members of their families.

The arrival of the Europeans ushered in the Atlantic slave trade, where Africans were sold into chattel slavery into the American continent. It lasted from the 15th through 19th centuries and was the largest legal form of unfree labor in the history of the United States, reaching 4 million slaves at its height.[citation needed] Slavery and involuntary servitude were made illegal through the thirteenth amendment, except as punishment for a crime.[1] However, unfree labor still existed legally in the form of the peonage system, especially in the New Mexico territories, debt bondage, penal labor and convict leasing, and debt bondage such as the truck system, as well as many illegal forms of unfree labor, particularly sexual slavery.

Labor reforms in the 19th and 20th eventually outlawed many of these forms of labors. However, illegal unfree labor in the form of human trafficking continued to grow, and the economy continued to rely on unfree labor from abroad. Starting at the end of the 20th century, there became an increased public awareness of human trafficking. More anti-human trafficking groups began to form and anti-human trafficking laws began to be passed, though the extent of the laws and the implementation varies widely from state to state. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that 17,500 people are trafficked into the country every year, but the true figure could be higher, because of the large numbers of undocumented immigrants. Those being trafficked include young children, teenagers, men and women and can be domestic citizens or foreign nationals. According to the Department of State's statistics from 2000, there are approximately 244,000 American children and youth that are at risk for sex trafficking each year. Of these children and youth, 38,600 were originally runaways.


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