The United States is one of only 17 countries worldwide that uses "modern slavery" with state-enforced labor.
The Global Slavery Index of 2023 from international human rights group Walk Free found the U.S. is among the few nations who still use compulsory prison labor. Other nations included China, North Korea, and Russia.
The report noted that slavery is legalized in the U.S. through the 13th Amendment. Though it intended to abolish chattel slavery, it reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
Therefore, prisoners across the country are not protected under labor laws, and are often unpaid or severely underpaid for their work “given that compulsory prison labor is considered a legal punishment rather than an economic activity," according to the report.
The U.S. has the largest rate of imprisonment in the world, which makes "the risk of state-imposed forced labor particularly concerning." The report also notes that this primarily impacts communities of color in the country.
"The burden of risk is disproportionately borne by people of color, who are overrepresented among US prison populations, in part due to over-policing and historical mass criminalization of their communities," it explains. "This is particularly true for Black men living in the US, who in 2020 were 5.7 times more likely to be imprisoned than White men."
While the greatest consequence of forced labor is its toll on human life, the report notes that it also "taints" the supply chain, as businesses and consumers find it hard to avoid purchasing products that have been made through forced labor.
"State-imposed forced labor may seem like an issue contained within national borders, yet many products associated with forms of state-imposed forced labor end up in global supply chains, with implications for governments, businesses, and consumers around the world," the study reads.
While forced labor is a global problem, the United States has a particularly impactful role in it. If they were to address the human rights abuses in the country, other nations may follow suit.
The report states: "The U.S. has both the resources and longstanding political will to lead the fight against modern slavery."