Content Warning: This post is about historic and modern slavery in the US and discusses sexual assault, family separation, physical violence, and more.
There are some unincarcerated people in the United States today who can accurately be described as slaves. Most of them are immigrants, working in agricultural labor and as domestic servants. They are not even second class citizens and may have no legal rights recognized or enforced in this country. Their employers may keep their passports hostage, restricting or eliminating their freedom of movement. If the boss decides then to dock, lower, or withhold their pay, who can they appeal to?
If your job sucks, that sucks. If you have the freedom and ability to quit that job, even if you would suffer severe economic consequences for doing so, it’s probably not slavery. If you have the freedom and ability to seek out new employment, even if you don’t find it, your job is probably not slavery. If you have the freedom and ability to report your boss for sex crimes, even if you decide not to, it’s probably not slavery.
That doesn’t mean it’s okay. Slavery may be the worst form of exploitation and abuse, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept lesser forms, or that they are not potential traumas of their own. Sometimes calling something what it really is, and not going for shocking hyperbole, makes it easier to take action. If you believe all jobs are equally slavery, why bother leaving this abusive boss just to find another? If we acknowledge there’s variety, there’s hope in a better job out there.
White men are the ones I see most often making this comparison. They are among the least likely in the US to be enslaved. People of color are overrepresented in prison populations, agricultural labor, and domestic servitude. Women and other non men are far more likely to experience sexual harassment and violence in the workplace.
When white men (and women) call their retail or factory or office job “slavery”, they are ignoring history and modern reality to do so. Erasing sexual violence, forced pregnancies, stolen babies, and the threat of death if they tried to escape. Forced labor was only ever one part of the ” peculiar institution”. If this all sounds shocking and new, your job is probably not slavery.