Ghana’s Lake Volta is well-known for two reasons. It’s the largest man-made reservoir in the world, and it’s the job site for hundreds, possibly thousands of child slaves, who paddle fishing boats, untangle nets or work in fishermen’s homes for zero pay and without being able to leave. Even in the U.S., fishing is considered among the most dangerous industries to work in. For the kids of Lake Volta, who are required to dive and unsnag nets from the murky lake bottom, it can and often does prove fatal.
The existence of the slaves, some as young as five, is not a secret. In fact, slavery has been against the law in Ghana since 2005. But, fueled by desperation and deceit, the practice of selling kids into bonded labor is proving hard to stamp out. After a multi-year program by the International Justice Mission (IJM), 10 kids were rescued in July 2015. Ghanaian law enforcement is understaffed and has other priorities. Authorities lack the resources to effectively address the problem.
This story, or ones like it, is repeated all over the world: Thai seafood workers are kept in cages. Indian brick workers are required to make 1,500 bricks a day by hand. Miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo are forced to work long hours under threat of physical punishment. Immigrant housemaids in Kuwait, deprived of their passports, are made to work 100 hours a week. Exactly two years ago on April 15, 2014, more than 200 girls were abducted in nothern Nigeria by Boko Haram and effectively became sex slaves or worse.
The problem of modern slavery is huge and hydra-headed and complicated to solve, since it requires co-operation on so many fronts—with local governments as well as with tiny local charities. While slavery is illegal everywhere, figures suggest somewhere between 20 million and 36 million people are in a situation where somebody else has powers of ownership over them, whether they are in debt bondage, forced to work against their will or held by force. And “rescuing” them is only solving half the problem. Afterward they need to rebuild their lives, their health, their job skills.
What might change the lives of people who have been thus ensnared is a big global pot of money—to help fund local authorities rescue slaves and enforce their anti-slavery laws, to rehabilitate former slaves and to educate and heal those rescued. Slavery is driven by money and won’t be extinguished without it. Amassing exactly such a big cash-pile is the stated purpose of the End Modern Slavery Initiative, or EMSI, a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. The bill would set up a foundation, partially funded by the U.S. government, but mostly by outside donors, to spend carefully with organizations and local government bodies to fight slavery, such as that on Lake Volta.
But the bill has been held up by a congressional row over abortion politics. Three Senators have reportedly logged objections, which might prevent it from coming to the Senate floor for a vote. It’s Senate tradition to decline to say who has put such a hold on a bill, but TIME’s research suggests that it’s Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Ted Cruz of Texas, who is currently running for the GOP presidential nomination. The bill’s supporters say the Senators are holding the bill over a concern that some of the anti-slavery money might be used to pay for abortions.
A Cruz spokesman says the Senator supports the goal of ending modern slavery and human trafficking but “he has some concerns with the EMSI bill, specifically whether it does enough to ensure that the foundation created by the bill would not be able to fund organizations that provide or support abortions.”
It’s an old fight in Congress, where the so-called Helms Amendment has barred any money given as foreign aid from paying for abortion since the 1970s. Sidebar fights over abortion funding have threatened all manner of legislation in the intervening decades. Because the anti-slavery bill would set up a government-sponsored institution that also accepts money from private donors and foreign governments, the three Senators argue that some of the other money it collects could go towards abortions. Lee, who is reportedly leading the fight, wants Helms Amendment-type language to apply to all of the money the institution accepts, including the cash collected from outside sources.
“There are no restrictions on this bill which restrict this federal government non-proft from using the money they get from non-government sources for abortion purposes,” says Conn Carroll, a spokesman for Lee. “If [Corker’s office] could get language that extends the same Helms amendment barriers to the rest of the money spent by this organization, then that would be different.”
Read More: What is the Modern Slave Trade?
Still, the bill is supported by dozens of faith-based organizations and leaders, including many that are avowedly pro-life, such as the Sisters of Mercy and mega-church pastor Rick Warren, and it was a faith-based organization, EndIt, that brought the issue to Corker’s attention. Some 600 faith leaders, including Gary Haugen of the IJM have urged passage of the bill. For many of them, the fight harkens back to the early abolitionist movement, which was dominated by church leaders and people of faith. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops does not oppose the bill in its current form, although it has said “it welcomes efforts by Lee and others to ensure that the new foundation would not subsidize abortions.” Even National Right To Life is fine with the bill its current form. “National Right to Life does not intend to take a position on this version of the legislation,” wrote NRL’s legislative director Douglas Johnson to legislators last month.
Corker is adamant that the bill, which passed unanimously out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is about slavery and slavery alone. “This fund is being established to free slaves, both in sexual servitude and forced labor, and prosecute their captors. The legislation does not provide for abortion and has no pro-life issues,” says Corker. “It would seem that those claiming otherwise either haven’t read the current version of the legislation or have other reasons for trying to kill a bill focused on rescuing over 27 million women, children and men enslaved today around the world.”
Indeed, many organizations work with trafficked and enslaved populations and never touch abortion. “I’ve worked with probably 500 women in the last two years and never even heard of anybody asking for an abortion,” says Amanda Eckhardt, director of programs for RestoreNYC, a faith-based charity that works with formerly trafficked women in New York City.
Some supporters of the bill have quietly suggested that the slim chance some foreign moneys might be used to fund abortions is a fig leaf for the real objection of the senators: they are opposed to any new government initiative to offer foreign aid of any sort. The U.S. financial commitment is for $250 million over seven years years, plus $1.25 billion from other donors, and has a number of built-in metrics to measure the effectiveness of the investment. The authorization for the funding is supposed to expire after seven years. But once the EMSI fund is up and running, the thinking goes, it could be around forever.
Corker can only bring the bill to the Senate floor through a maneuver known as unanimous consent, meaning the bill would get an up-or-down vote with no amendments or debates allowed because of time pressures the Senate is facing. But Lee wants the bill to be open to debate: “We’re not giving our consent because we want to have votes on amendments,” says Carroll. A spokesman for Lankford, Darrell Jordan, said in an email that the Senator “supports the objective of the bill, and appreciates Senator Corker’s leadership on this important issue.” He would not comment on whether Lankford had put a hold on the bill, citing Senate tradition.
While these machinations take place, the clock is ticking. Corker has already secured the wherewithal to fund the bill if it passes. However, that money can be used for another purpose if the legislation is still languishing by September. And if a vote is delayed for another year, the money would have to be appropriated again, throwing up another roadblock.
Meanwhile, the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the boys on Lake Volta and the kids breaking coal for the Indian brick kilns have to wake up every morning to face another day of misery and servitude, with no hope that their lives or futures can be redeemed.
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