Slavery and Forced Labor in Our Time – by José Ramón Cossío Díaz (El País)

~ This opinion piece was originally published in El País on May 6, 2015 ~


The Mexican state lacks the ability to pursue banned forms of exploitation.

In recent days, Mexican media outlets have used the term “slavery” to describe the situation of [agricultural] laborers in San Quintín, Baja California, and the woman chained to an ironing board [at a laundromat] in Mexico City. The word evokes a condition that we had assumed long passed, an image of blacks chained in boats setting sail from Africa or working in southern plantations in the United States. These cinematic constructions made us believe that the phenomenon had disappeared and that, therefore, the description used by Mexican media was wrong, or at least misunderstood.

Legally, slavery was a form of ownership of human beings based on international practices and national norms. The key was that people were given the quality of things, transferrable and usable, the same as any other object of commerce. States shaped and took charge of slavery, using administrative and legal systems to permit it, while punishing violations of rights that were considered legitimate. Slavery was morally questioned and progressively banned. Currently, it is prohibited and internationally sanctioned. No state can sanction it without assuming international liability.

The practices seen in Mexico do not constitute slavery, but rather are cases of forced labor. Correctly labeling the phenomenon makes it no less grave, in fact, it increases the seriousness of it. The Mexican state no longer guarantees abject legal conditions [like slavery] that used to be permitted by society, but it is also incapable of identifying and prosecuting forms of human exploitation abolished long ago.. In some cases, this is because it lacks the necessary force or the territorial presence to interfere in networks of organized crime. In some regions, organized crime forces people into various fields, including sex work, gangsterism, and serving as criminal lookouts, or construction. Freeing these people from such coercion will only come with the reduction of the influence of organized or, more optimistically, with the state’s timely and specific intervention in specific areas of that field of criminal activity. In other cases, that state’s inability to address the crime of forced labor is due to its lack of even a minimal capacity for the surveillance of citizens not involved in organized crime. To monitor everyday people who, in legal undertakings, carry out activities or maintain conditions of work that are illicit –those who, in an ordinary neighborhood, work daily in a laundromat, a strip club, a sewing factory, a bar or in agriculture, in a territory not controlled by the narco. In other cases, this ability to address the problem comes even when the state does have a certain capacity for surveillance, but its authorities do not exercise that capacity due to a prevailing atmosphere of corruption. This involves not seeing, not acting, not denouncing an establishment or its owners, despite knowing that someone there is being subjected to illegal conditions of labor.

In Mexico, there is not slavery in the institutional sense. There is no ownership of people, nor are they an object of legal commerce. There are, however, conditions of domination similar to those permitted under slavery. That this is true in many other countries is not a consolation, but rather an indication that the problem is both general and reprehensible in our time. There are strictly national solutions that involve recovering the state’s functions of surveillance. Labor and health inspections, knowledge of neighborhoods and their inhabitants, control over the corruption of inspectors and police. There are other solutions that involve combatting the criminality that determines the tasks of those living in territories it controls. There are other forms of confronting the forced submission that comes from the intervention of international networks and these solutions require international cooperation. Whatever form they take, these actions should be deployed. Combatting the growing existence of forced labor is one of the moral obligations of our time, just as slavery was for other generations.

José Ramón Cossío Díaz is a minister of Mexico’s Supreme Court. This essay was originally published by El País at:

Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.