STD Rates Among the Poor and Homeless in Alabama

by Kelsey Johnson (guest blogger)

Picture of a homeless shelter with people standing around and lying down, waiting for a meal and a bed
Source: Yahoo Images

As of 2018, approximately 38.1 million people in the U.S. live below the poverty line. Furthermore, on a given night, over 550,000 people experienced homelessness. 

Of those numbers, more than 800,000 Alabama residents live in poverty, making it the sixth poorest state in the U.S. Approximately 3,434 people experience homelessness in Alabama on a given night. 

Poverty and a lack of adequate housing are considered human rights violations, as they interfere significantly with an individual’s ability to live safely and with dignity. For people experiencing poverty and/or homelessness, these situations impact all aspects of their lives, especially their physical health.

One way that these health issues manifest is in the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV/AIDS among these populations. Overall, rates of STDs, particularly chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, are at an all-time high in the U.S., according to a 2019 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2017-18, there were nearly 2.5 million total reported cases of the three STDs, including over 1.7 million cases of chlamydia, 583,405 cases of gonorrhea, and 115,045 cases of syphilis. 

Two urban areas in Alabama, Montgomery and Birmingham, are among the top 20 U.S. cities reporting the highest rates of STDs, including HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Mobile and Huntsville also ranked in the top 100. Alabama has the fourth highest rate of gonorrhea infections in the country. Additionally, as of 2016, there were 12,643 people in Alabama living with HIV. 

While the CDC report examined STD prevalence among various demographics, it did not focus on STD rates among low-income or homeless populations. However, a literature review published in 2018 in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases found that STD prevalence ranged from 2.1% to 52.5% among the homeless adult population. 

This study also identified many of the factors that increase the risks of contracting an STD among homeless individuals. A number of these risk factors also apply to individuals living in poverty, even if they have stable housing. Additional studies offer more insight into the recent rise in STD cases, as well as recommendations for how to decrease their spread among all populations.

Factors contributing to STD prevalence among low-income and homeless populations 

There are several factors that contribute to the prevalence of STDs in low-incomes and homeless communities, including lack of access to affordable prevention and treatment options; lack of comprehensive sex education; the comorbidity of issues like mental illness or substance abuse, and the stigma surrounding STDs. 

According to a 2019 report by the National Coalition of STD Directors, “…poverty is both a cause of infection, and a barrier to the ability to seek care. Poorer populations are less likely to receive appropriate sexual health education, suffer higher rates of substance abuse, and may have more trouble accessing sexual health services.”

Poor or homeless individuals are less likely to have health insurance, or resources to pay for out-of-pocket healthcare costs. Many individuals living in southern states, including Alabama, fall into what is known as the coverage gap, meaning they make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to pay for health insurance.

Even if individuals have health insurance, their coverage may be limited to certain providers or services, and may exclude STD testing or treatment. The time and money it takes to travel to healthcare facilities, especially in predominantly rural states like Alabama, also present a barrier to care, even for insured individuals. 

Additionally, budget cuts have forced many STD clinics to close or reduce their services. The loss of these clinics is harmful because not only do they often provide STD testing and treatment on a sliding fee scale, they are staffed by individuals with specialized knowledge in diagnosing and treating STDs.  

The other primary factor in higher STD rates is a lack of comprehensive sex education. As the NCSD report states, “States typically define the broad parameters of sexual health education in public schools. Not surprisingly, these parameters vary widely among states.” Studies show a correalation between insufficient sex education and higher STD rates. Kathie Hiers, the CEO of AIDS Alabama, says the state represents a “perfect storm” for the spread of AIDS and other STDs, in part because of its “poor educational systems that often ignore sexual health.”

This lack of education about STDs also perpetuates the stigma surrounding them, which prevents people from seeking treatment, according to Hiers. Other conditions that are prevalent among poor and homeless populations, including mental illness, incarceration history, and intravenous drug use, also make individuals more susceptible to STDs, and present barriers to seeking treatment.

How to prevent the spread of STDs among low-income and homeless populations

The studies and experts cited in this post offer several recommendations for steps that can be taken, nationwide and in individual states, to decrease the spread of STDs among low-income and homeless populations, including: 

  • Removing financial barriers to healthcare, including adopting Medicaid expansion. The Alabama Hospital Association estimates that by adopting Medicaid expansion, an additional 300,000 residents would be eligible for health insurance.
  • Increasing or restoring funding to public health agencies and STD clinics that provide free or low-cost testing and treatment.
  • Improving access to healthcare facilities through transportation and operating on evenings and weekends.
  • Providing comprehensive sex education in schools. In 2019, the Alabama House of Representatives failed to address a bill that would have made the state’s sex education curriculum more scientifically and medically accurate. The bill would have updated the curriculum’s language to address “sexually transmitted diseases” as “sexually transmitted infections,” which is considered less stigmatizing.
  • Expanding resources to support homeless individuals, and increasing their access to stable housing. A 2016 report by the Homelessness in Alabama Project offered several specific recommendations for addressing homelessness in Alabama.

Additional Resources

A Time to Recognize and Safeguard The Rights That Connect Us

by Peter Verbeek, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Program Director MA Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights)

A picture of a girl with a surgical mask covering her mouth and nose
Source: Yahoo Images

On March 6, 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a statement calling for an holistic human rights based approach to combat COVID-19. She wrote, “As a medical doctor, I understand the need for a range of steps to combat COVID-19, and as a former head of government, I understand the often difficult balancing act when hard decisions need to be taken.” However our efforts to combat this virus won’t work unless we approach it holistically, which means taking great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically.” She added, “COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus. Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in that effort, not an afterthought.” 

To heed Dr. Bachelet’s call we must remind ourselves of the fact that human rights are universal and inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. We also must recognize that the essence of human rights is human dignity. All human rights arise from it and all human beings are born with it and posses it throughout their life span. Human dignity is not measured on a sliding scale. To illustrate, there is no difference in human dignity between that of the office holder of the Presidency of the United States and the migrant at the US Southern border. The accused in the court proceeding has the same human dignity as the judge presiding over her case. The convict and the prison guard do not differ in their human dignity. The human dignity of the disabled veteran is the same as that of the person pushing her wheelchair. And the human dignity of the COVID-19 patient in the isolation ward is the same as that of the health-care worker taking care of him. 

The recognition of our shared human dignity and the safeguarding of the rights that arise from it is a powerful unifier in troubled times. Now that we are faced with a near global outbreak of an until recently unidentified corona virus we can stand united in the recognition that every person on this Earth has an irrevocable right to health care and security in the case of illness (UDHR, Article 25). With rights come responsibilities, and the unifying power of universal human rights is the way that each of us in accordance with our specific context and abilities has a role to play in safeguarding access to appropriate preventive and interventional health care and personal security regarding COVID-19. Our individual roles are necessarily varied, from driving a neighbor without proper means of transportation to a health care facility, to following “doctor’s orders” concerning personal hygiene or social distancing. If infected or taken ill we have a right to receive the best available care and the responsibility to follow the guidelines in place so as to minimize the risk of infecting others. Each of us has a responsibility to listen to the relevant and evolving science as communicated by medical experts, and each of us has the responsibility to comply with the local and national guidelines that are based on this science. 

Some of those taken ill with COVID-19 will die in spite of our best efforts to care for them and protect them. If the fight to save their life is at the cusp of being lost we have the responsibility to see to it that their death reflects the human dignity that they possess. Medical science does not yet have the answer to the question of how to protect oneself conclusively against viral infections such as the current corona virus. That realization, while sobering, should not keep us from doing all we can in terms of what we do know about prevention. There is much that we can do to limit the risk of infection, provided we follow the relevant science. The human rights motto is that any infection, or worse, any death, linked to insufficient preventive measures is one too many, and we all stand united in this through the human dignity that each of us possesses. 

Kenya and Beyond: Including Human Rights in Conservation

Nelson and Maggie Reiyia watched in despair as their community slowly fell into decline despite tourism profits from nearby Maasai Mara National Reserve. As indigenous Maasai themselves, the Reiyias were determined to reinvigorate their community despite the massive forces of ‘big’ conservation and outside development. Thus, they set out to create the first Maasai-run conservancy in the history of Kenya and reconnect their people, culture, and livestock to the land and its wild inhabitants.

A Maasai man in traditional red clothing overlooks the Sekenani River. Nearby vegetation reflects off the water's rippled surface.
A Maasai tribe member overlooks the Sekenani River. The Sekenani restoration project is one of many local initiatives conducted by the Nashulai Conservancy. (Photo credit: The Nashulai Conservancy, http://www.nashulai.com/sekenani-river-restoration)

Historically, the Maasai and other Kenyan tribes occupied these lands until Western colonial powers began to forcibly move people to make room for themselves and their ever expanding game reserves. Sadly, there is a long history of colonial and post-colonial entities removing people from their lands in the name of conservation and game management. This tendency to ‘Other’ people unlike us – that is, to assume their inferiority as humans – continues to taint conservation and often results in counterproductive efforts to save endangered species.

Sadly, this model of conservation has been adopted the world over and partly stems from the assumption that Indigenous people lack the ability to govern themselves or the knowledge to sustainably manage their lands. Yet, in the case of the Maasai, they have occupied the landscape long enough for it to become an integral part of their culture and worldview. Of course this is hardy meant to reference to the outdated ‘noble savage’ cliché; rather, it is an attempt to force us to consider who was already managing these lands and critical resources before the colonizers arrived.

A herd of wildebeest and zebras meandering about the vast and empty Maasai Mara National Reserve.
A herd of wildebeests cross the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Every year the migration of these animals attracts tourists from around the globe. (Photo credit: Sherrie Alexander)

An additional assumption held by Western society and much of modern conservation is that people should be removed from their lands in order to establish pristine areas for wildlife. Enter the additional force of tourism – a massive economic influence that often turns sentiments against local populations thought to be spoiling the landscape, competing with wildlife, and over-hunting the animals we so desperately seek on our travels. Don’t get me wrong, tourism can be a positive source of income for a region. But when money takes precedence over people depending on ancestral lands, it is unethical at best.

Finally, we cannot forget the horrid calls to shoot poachers on-sight and emotional outcries against trophy hunting. In our Western need to anthropomorphize wildlife, especially the ‘cute’ or charismatic animals, we fail to see the socioeconomic complexities of people and place. We also have to remind ourselves these are not our animals to govern. These animals – if they can be thought of to belong to anyone – are clearly in the domain of the countries in which they reside and the people living among them. In other instances, certain animals represent a critical source of local income through legal trophy hunting. But as we saw with the ‘Cecil the Lion’ outrage, the Western world is appalled at the thought of killing a lion for any reason while giving little thought to the ribeye steak on our dinner plate.

Two zebras graze in the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve where the grass and sky both seem endless. Few people are seen aside from tour guides and tourists.
Zebras graze in the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve where few people are seen aside from tourists and their tour guides. (Photo credit: Sherrie Alexander)

Conservation is complicated so we have to look at the bigger picture. It is often as much about humans as it is about wildlife and ‘wild’ spaces. The combined result of ‘Othering’ indigenous populations and disregarding their traditional ecological knowledge, while simultaneously anthropomorphizing wildlife and claiming ownership over entire ecosystems, has led us to our current circumstances. While many conservation initiatives are beginning to take local and Indigenous voices into account, the unfortunate fact is that neocolonial conservation is alive and well.

Over the last decade I have watched as the push for social science integration with conservation biology has slowly gained momentum. Such calls for interdisciplinary approaches have arisen from the desperate need to better understand the multifaceted human dimension of conservation. ‘Fortress conservation’ and the forced removal of people from their lands, or lack of access to resources and profits from their lands, are outdated practices and clear human-rights violations. From conservation to tourism, local cultures have a right to be included. In fact, research from myself and others has demonstrated that when communities are intimately involved there is an increased likelihood of long-term conservation success.

The Nashulai model diagrams depicts their commitment to helping both people and wildlife while also preserving cultural heritage.
The integrated Nashulai model emphasizes the need to help both people and wildlife while also preserving cultural heritage. (Image credit: The Nashulai Conservancy, http://www.nashulai.com/)

After hearing Nelson and Maggie Reiyia speak at UAB about their indigenous-run conservancy and the advances they have achieved for both their cultural and biological heritage, I believe there is hope that we can shift the narrative of conservation to one that is more inclusive and ethical. Simply put, supporting initiatives like the Nashulai Conservancy can help push back against ongoing injustices and bring human rights to the forefront of conservation.

Sherrie D. Alexander, MA
University of Alabama at Birmingham, Researcher and Instructor of Anthropology
IUCN Primate Specialist Group, Section for Human-Primate Interactions, Member
Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation, North American representative

Land acknowledgement: The University of Alabama at Birmingham is located on the traditional lands of the Muskogee Creek Indians.  

 

 

Honoring Our Responsibilities to People and Other Animals

by Pamela Zuber

Dog's teeth through a knothole in a fence
Image: Pixabay

On August 19, 2019, nine-year-old Emma Hernandez died in Detroit, Michigan. She died from injuries she sustained after three dogs mauled her.

Hernandez’s death comes after her family and others issued multiple complaints and filed police reports about the dogs roaming free in the neighborhood and their owner’s inability to contain them. Neighbors tried to stop the mauling by attacking the pit bulls, but the girl suffered a fractured cervical spine and several other injuries. Writing in the Detroit News, Sarah Rahal noted that “[t]he attack was so horrific that counseling services were offered to emergency responders.”

While the death of any nine-year-old is a tragedy, Emma Hernandez’s death is especially tragic because it was so violent and so avoidable. We should not allow dangerous and potentially domestic animals to travel freely. Taking the effort to contain such animals with secure fencing and other restraints protects people’s rights to safety and security.

Not possessing such animals in the first place also prevents such tragedies. Training animals to be vicious or adopting particularly vicious animals can create disasters like Hernandez’s death. People may argue that vicious animals are security measures to prevent crime, but actually, they’re like the guns that people buy for personal security. Violent animals and guns may produce more violence than prevent it. “Access to a gun triples the risk of suicide death,” according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

What about the rights of pet owners?

(For the purposes of this article, we refer to pet owners as people who adopt animals.) Authorities have charged Pierre Cleveland, the dogs’ owner, with second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and owning dangerous animals that led to Hernandez’s death. People previously filed police about roaming dogs from his house. Detroit Animal Care and Control, part of the city’s health department, visited his house in March, 2018 after receiving reports that two dogs from the house were loose. It is unclear whether the department found the animals dangerous or if they were the same dogs involved in the fatal 2019 mauling.

Clearly, improprieties involving dogs occurred in southwest Detroit in 2018 and 2019. Detroit’s home state of Michigan has clear definitions and determinations about dangerous animals, conditions that determine dangerous animal ownership, guidelines for euthanizing dangerous animals, and penalties for people who possess dangerous animals that cause harm.

Owning a dangerous pet is similar to owning a dangerous weapon. Both may inflict a great deal of harm on innocent people. Guns are inanimate objects. While dangerous animals do have brains, they do not have the reasoning abilities that people have. Dogs cannot build enclosures or make laws to corral themselves physically. It is therefore incumbent on people to control creatures and weapons. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA):

In order for dogs to live harmoniously with people and with other companion animals, it is critical to hold guardians responsible for the proper supervision of their dogs and for any actions on their part that either create or encourage aggressive behavior.

Responsibly owning pets is a societal obligation. We have responsibilities to others and expect that others will behave in similar ways. While we are allowed to own pets (within limits), we have to do so responsibly to live with others safely and harmoniously.

What about the rights of others?

Emma Hernandez lived next door to vicious dogs. She probably faced their barking, snarling, and aggression frequently, if not daily, during her young life. They may have been the last things she ever saw. Can you imagine living and dying with such fear?

Living with anxiety, with the constant threat of danger, may be harmful to one’s mental health. It may drive some people to drink too much or use drugs to try to escape their fear and anxiety. It could cause other symptoms of anxiety, such as insomnia, stomach problems, uneasiness, and other unpleasant side effects. We don’t know what Emma Hernandez experienced and we can’t ask her.

Safety is a fundamental right. We have entire systems to provide different kinds of safety. We have police departments and legal systems to prevent crime or prosecute it if it occurs. We have health departments that work to prevent or minimizes illnesses or injuries. These entities failed Emma Hernandez and her family.

“Everyone has the right to live, to be free, and to feel safe” is Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Did Emma feel free and safe? Or, did human negligence lead to an egregious attack on her human rights?

How do we prevent such tragedies?

Mean-looking dog
Image: Pixabay

What happened in August 2019 in Detroit was preventable. If workers from animal control visited the house to investigate the pit bulls involved in the attack, they should have taken steps to reign in the animals and actually practice the animal control that is part of the department’s name.

When authorities are called to homes with potentially violent animals, they should remove the animals until their owners make their homes safer by building or reinforcing fences, gates, or doors or taking other safety precautions. If owners cannot afford such modifications, maybe authorities could pay for the changes and garnish pet owners’ paychecks or other sources of income.

If people do not have the income to secure their animals or repay authorities for providing such safety measures, maybe they shouldn’t own animals at all. Pet ownership is a privilege, not a right.

We could compare adopting a pet to owning a car. Owning a car requires paying for fuel, maintenance, insurance, and other charges. People are required to invest money and be diligent to make sure that their cars run properly and don’t pose hazards to others. To receive driver’s licenses, they must learn how to operate them safely.

Similarly, maybe people need training about how to handle animals. After this training, they could receive licenses to adopt pets. If their pets cause harm, people could have their licenses revoked and face further penalties, such as not being able to adopt additional pets.

Maybe law enforcement agencies and other bodies should institute a two-strike rule as well. If authorities return animals to a home and the animals provoke additional formal complaints, the authorities should remove the animals from the owners. If this provision was in place, authorities could have removed the dogs who caused the 2019 fatal mauling.

Every day, we do things to try to protect our safety and the safety of others. We drive our cars at speed limits, we cannot cross the street at any time at any place, we can only smoke tobacco in designated areas. We are allowed to do things that are potentially dangerous, but within limits.

Owning a pet comes with similar parameters. We can own animals, but not dangerous ones. If we do something that jeopardizes our safety or the safety of others, we should face repercussions. While there are ongoing repercussions to the 2019 mauling, they are unfortunately too late to help Emma Hernandez. Maybe these measures and other proposals will help people in the future before similar tragedies strike.

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who writes about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.

Collective Guilt and Responsibility

by Marie Miguel

the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
Holocaust Memorial Berlin. Source: Karen Mardahl, Creative Commons.

Collective guilt is a phenomenon that has impacted societies over time. The idea of collective responsibility means that we (as a society) feel responsible for hurting a group of people. It typically connects with tragic events such as genocides. One country or people feel bad about a tragic event. Why does collective guilt happen? It occurs when members of society feel that their actions are hurting others. 

Syria and collective guilt 

One example of collective guilt is when the United States deliberately neglected hundreds of thousands of individuals in Syria. After this occured many people in the United States felt guilty. The United States has an extremely extensive history of neglecting different cultures. A prime example is the Native Americans. When the United States was colonized, Native Americans were abused and murdered in their own land. The guilt our people felt did not occur until centuries later. As a result of the collective guilt and responsibility, our people feel for what we’ve done to the Native Americans, we teach children about their culture in schools. We assume cultural responsibility for what we’ve done to them by owning the fact that we hurt their people and took away their land. 

The Holocaust 

The same goes for the Holocaust and what happened to the Jewish people in Europe. Many Jews were murdered by the Nazis and Americans watched this happen. We did fight against what was happening to Jews in Germany, however, it was too late in some ways. By that time millions of Jews had already died at the hands of the Nazis. Americans did not intervene to try to help in a way that millions of Jews of their plight of death. Collective guilt has a strong association with neglect and not taking action, it is deliberate neglect. It’s standing by while something awful happens and doing little or nothing to stop it.

Studies about collective guilt 

There are studies where the authors of the research focused on historical victimization. In these studies, they are concerned about the emotional responses to genocide or societal tragedy. In one study Americans experienced less collective guilt when they were harming citizens in Iraq during the period of September 11th. That time period was challenging for the world’s population. Many cultures struggle with knowing how to feel. Collective guilt was a common emotion during this time.

Vulnerable groups and collective guilt

One thing to recognize about collective guilt is that it has perpetuated stigma amongst many cultural groups during history. For example, consider the Jews during the Holocaust in Germany. In the states, people felt bad about what was happening to the Jews across the sea. Despite this, the Jewish people were stigmatized as bad and murdered by the Nazis. The responsibility for this terrible event didn’t take place until years later. Christians were able to rationalize anti-Semitism during this era and many others. The current administration has put collective guilt on Mexicans and demanded that we build a wall to keep them out of the states. He has put collective guilt on Muslims labeling them terrorists. Collective guilt as well as scapegoating contribute to a larger problem, which results in genocide and other cultural intolerance and discrimination. 

What can we do to change collective guilt?

As a nation, we need to be mindful of when we are able to take action and recognize how we can help different cultures with their struggles and challenges. We need to remember not to be egocentric and recognize that we’re part of a larger collective: the world. Everybody deserves to have a good life, and it’s not good to turn a blind eye when you see people of other nations suffering. So if we can mobilize and help people rather than turning around and pretending that no one’s hurting that’s what can stop this situation from continually occurring. 

Letting go of guilt

Guilty feelings can be intense. If you’re feeling the weight of guilt, you’re not alone. Many people feel conflicted and guilty of a plethora of reasons. Some people feel guilty about hurting their friends, loved ones or their partner. It’s difficult to let go of guilt whether that’s collective guilt or if you’re feeling guilty as an individual. When you feel guilty about something, it’s usually because you don’t want to let others down. It can be difficult to let go of guilty feelings, particularly if you have not worked through them. One of the best ways to do this is by talking to a therapist. Whether you work with a therapist in your local area or find an online counselor to help you process these guilty feelings. Whatever your challenges are, you can get help in therapy. Guilt is something that can cause us distress, whether it is collective or individual. But you can get the help you need to stop feeling guilty and start getting better.

 

Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health-related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

The Sex Trafficking Industry Right In Alabama

by Dianna Bai

a picture of hands in chains
Source: Public Domain

You may have heard of the tragic situation straddling the I-20 corridor, the stretch of highway that runs between Birmingham and Atlanta.

Known as the “sex trafficking super highway,” the I-20 corridor is a hotbed for human trafficking.

The intimate settings of this illegal trade? Familiar places in our backyard: the hotels on Oxmoor Road, Woodlawn, Bessemer, and establishments all over the city of Birmingham.

Yet sex trafficking is not just confined to the I-20 corridor, as many media reports would suggest. It’s spread throughout the state of Alabama, in large cities and rural areas alike, appearing in myriad variations. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are over 6000 victims of human trafficking each day in Alabama, which includes labor and sex trafficking.

As a $32 billion industry, human trafficking is the second-largest criminal industry in the world after the illicit drug trade—and it’s the fastest-growing. It’s the modern-day slave trade flourishing under the radar.

In the idyllic foothills of Alabama, we are touched by dark and complex operations with global reverberations.

Who are the victims of sex trafficking in Alabama?

Sex traffickers prey on the vulnerable, such as people who come from poverty or broken families.

According to The WellHouse, a non-profit organization that shelters young women in Alabama who have been victims of sex trafficking, there is a common “model” of a victim human traffickers prey on.

She is often a 12-14-year-old girl who has already been a victim of sexual abuse by a family member. An emotionally vulnerable young woman, she is lured in by the promises of comfort, love, and acceptance that an older man offers her.

He will later become her captor.

One example provided by Carolyn Potter, the executive director of The WellHouse, offers us a glimpse into the world of the girls who become victims of traffickers:

“There was a victim who had been abused by her stepfather—and her mother blamed her. Her captor started luring her in and buying her Hello Kitty items. She loved this. Nobody who was supposed to protect her protected her.”

Sex traffickers often prey on girls who have been abused by the people who love them. The accumulated trauma and experiences of abuse that these girls have been subjected to in their young lives gives rise to a sense of apathy and hopelessness.

So when their captors, who had been lavishing them with gifts and attention, start asking them to sell their bodies, their reaction is often, “Why not? This has been happening to me all my life.”

To numb the pain of repeated abuse, they may turn to drugs provided by the captors and become addicted. Traffickers then have a way to keep them from leaving.

A few might escape this life by her own efforts, but more often than not they escape through rescue operations carried out by law enforcement. In January of this year, the Well House participated in a sting operation led by the FBI during the Atlanta Super Bowl that rescued 18 girls and led to 169 arrests.

Once rescued, one of the most important steps to helping victims is simply the process of gaining their trust, as most victims who have been trapped in this life suffer from complex trauma. “Their level of PTSD is equal to someone who’s been in war,” Potter said.

What does the sex trafficking industry look like in Alabama?

As a criminal activity, sex trafficking in Alabama can take on many forms.  

“Alabama is a microcosm of human trafficking around the world,” said Christian Lim, a professor of social work at the University of Alabama who is heading up a federally funded project on the subject. “There is just about every type of human trafficking in Alabama.”

On one end of the spectrum, there are individual pimps conducting a small-time business. They might even be family members who are pimping out their children for rent or drug money—and these cases often go unreported because of the family connection. On the other end, there are the massage parlors that are the fronts for international criminal networks, laundering money and trafficking women from places as far as China and Korea. These massage parlors routinely bring in $500,000-$800,000 a year, operating late into the night and advertising online at dozens of websites selling sex.

Sex trafficking has also risen in recent years among street gangs in Alabama with ties to Georgia, Florida, and even the West Coast, according to Teresa Collier at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Street gangs such as the Bloods, Simon City Royals, Latin Kings, and Surenos are known to be engaging in sex trafficking to make a profit alongside the illegal drug trade. Recruiting mostly young victims, traffickers use “bottom girls” – prostitutes who are trusted by the pimps – to identify and recruit new girls, as well as a bevy of popular social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, KIK, Meet Me, Badoo, and Seeking Arrangement. Gangs like the Surenos, which have a powerful reach back to El Salvador, can even coerce the women by threatening their families back home.

In many cases, other criminal activities such as drug dealing, money laundering, and murder also surround sex trafficking operations.

What’s being done about sex trafficking in Alabama?

One reason Alabama attracts traffickers of all stripes is because it is easier to get away with the crime than other states like Georgia that have a tactical task force dedicated to combating sex trafficking, according to Collier at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Also playing to the trafficker’s advantage is the fact that Alabama is mostly a rural state with greater distances between police stations and fewer resources for law enforcement, said Lim, the professor of social work at the University of Alabama. He also said there’s needs to be more awareness raised about this issue as many misconceptions exist about sex trafficking due to the popular media’s portrayal of sex trafficking in movies like “Taken.”

The Department of Homeland Security is investigating an array of cases in Alabama and prosecuting cases at both the state and federal level. “We have made human trafficking arrests at every socioeconomic level in Birmingham, from Mountain Brook to $35-a-night hotel rooms,” said Doug Gilmer, the agent in charge of the Department of Homeland Security’s Birmingham office. “Trafficking victims also run the spectrum, with girls ranging from age 12 to the 50s.”

DHS has also provided training to 1500 Alabama law enforcement officers to combat sex trafficking in the state and offers education to any community group that’s interested. These trainings focus on how to how to recognize the signs of sex trafficking, how to respond to a call, and how to support the victims.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies such as the Tuscaloosa Police have jumpstarted special initiatives to combat sex trafficking in Alabama. The Tuscaloosa Police worked with Illinois’ Cooke County police three years ago in a “National Day of Johns” sting, specifically targeting the “demand” side of the industry. Officers placed fictitious ads for sex services on various sites, which led to the arrest of 135 Johns over 16 days.

But it’s a cat-and-mouse game as traffickers find new ways to advertise sex services, moving from online ads to alternatives like secret Facebook groups. Undercover agents are seeking out these secret online groups to find traffickers and victims as traffickers learn from past mistakes and become savvier at using the digital tools at their disposal. A popular website hosted in the United States, backpage.com, was shut down by the FBI several years ago, yet has created new challenges for law enforcement as dozens of newer and smaller sites have now popped up hosted by foreign servers that are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Alabama’s state legislature is also moving on this issue. They have recently passed three resolutions that would require training for truckers and healthcare workers to spot the signs of human trafficking and make it easier for the trucker to identify victims. Two other bills moving through the legislature are intended to fine and “shame” johns for soliciting sex services.

“There should be no politics when it comes to protecting our children,” State Representative Merika Coleman told AL.com.

Right in Our Backyard

It is revealing and disheartening to see the extent of the modern-day slave trade right here in our backyard in Alabama. Without the right consciousness, it may be invisible to the average person. You may see a scantily dressed young woman walking through a gas station, a Sonic, or a Walmart. She is always accompanied by someone. She looks depressed or hopeless… You may have just run into a victim of human trafficking.

Vulnerable women (and men) and children are being exploited over and over again for the profit of more powerful and unscrupulous individuals and criminal organizations. The traffickers could be anyone, but what they have in common is a disturbing disregard for human life and human dignity. In Alabama, there are many dedicated agencies fighting for the human rights of these victims, including The WellHouse, Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, Alabama Fusion Center, and the Department of Homeland Security.

For DHS agent Doug Gilmer, there is a sense of urgency to his mission because it is a crime that’s “unspeakable.”

“When you get into the nitty-gritty of sex trafficking at the street level and you are interacting with the victims, seeing what they go through, seeing what the traffickers do…. It’s horrible,” Gilmer said. “Seeing a 14-year-old girl with eight different STDs and the 35-year-old man who purchases this girl for sex?”

“It shocks the conscience.”

Important Links

The WellHouse – A 24-hour shelter offering immediate assistance to trafficked women who are rescued from anywhere in the United States.

EnditAlabama.org – A project of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, which brings together public and private agencies to address the issue in Alabama.

Alabama Fusion Center – An information-sharing organization within the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency designed to combine or “fuse” information between federal, state and local government, private sector entities, and the intelligence community

Department of Homeland Security “Blue Campaign” – A national public awareness campaign, designed to educate the public, law enforcement and other industry partners to recognize the indicators of human trafficking, and how to appropriately respond to possible cases

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.

Disability and Isolation in Our Modern World

by Marie Miguel 

a picture of a young boy sitting alone on a park bench
Source: Public Domain

There are many types of disabilities. There is no one way to be disabled. One thing is for sure, living with a disability can be challenging. The navigation of places that are not disability-friendly remains overlooked. Having a physical disability means there is a need to make sure areas and spaces are accessible, and if you have an invisible disability, like severe anxiety, there is a need to ensure that you are mentally and physically prepared against possible triggering. However, there are no guarantees.

Misunderstanding and disabilities

Having a disability isn’t easy in this world. You want others to understand you, but it’s exhausting to try to keep re-explaining your experience. Some days you want to live a regular life, and not think about how you are different from others. If you are living with a mental illness, you are often misunderstood. People do not understand what it is like to live with severe anxiety, mania, crippling depression, or PTSD. Having to fight a constant battle with your mind is extremely difficult to explain to someone who does not know or care what it is like. For example, the thought of leaving the house is terrifying for someone with agoraphobia or similar phobias, while many others have no thoughts about it.

The world is not accessible as it should be; in fact, it is quite the opposite. It is difficult to mask or pretend to be “normal.” According to NAMI, one in five people have a mental illness. Mental illnesses are considered disabilities. If your mental illness is severe enough to impact your functioning, you might isolate and fear to be around others because you’re stigmatized. It is not healthy for the human experience, as social isolation may cause loneliness, depression, physical health complications, and may lead to taking one’s life.

As a society, what can we do?

We must work to understand those living with mental illness as well as other disabilities. There is a lack of understanding of differences when it comes to our society. We expect people to be cookie cutters and the standard of “normal” does not accurately reflect our world in terms of the human experience. The human condition is that we are all unique. The ADA limited in its protections against discrimination due to the stigma surrounding the identification of disability. The “yes, I have a disability” box on applications is supposed to allow for accommodations. Yet, the fear of stigma often paralyzes many people from checking it; checking the box places you in a proverbial box. The impact of being “boxed” because of a disability can have a severe impact on a person’s state of mind and overall wellbeing. Additionally, the failure to comprehend and/or empathize with persons with disabilities can come off as judgemental and further exasperate the issues.

Preventing social isolation

It is tempting to want to isolate when you cannot seem to find a sense of community or belonging, but we, as a society, can prevent this from happening. Studies show that isolation is as harmful to our health as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. It is important to remember that an answer is available. One of the things that we can do in addition to raising awareness for disabilities and the experiences of people living with disabilities is to pursue mental health treatment. If you have a disability, no matter what it is, talking about how society impacts you is empowering. Whether you work with a counselor in your local area or try online therapy, you deserve to be heard. Speak out and up, advocate for yourself and others with disabilities, and take care of your mental health because you deserve it.

 

Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health-related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

Considering the ERA

by Pam Zuber

a photo of Alice Paul sewing the Suffrage flag
Alice Paul and the Suffrage flag. Source: Public domain

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Twenty-four words that may mean so much. The above words are the text of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Long discussed, the U.S. Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1972 but it has stalled since then. Not enough states have ratified this proposal to make it an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a basis of comparison, on the international level, the United Nations (UN) sponsors the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The UN body adopted this convention five years after it was written. Do these differing timelines indicate different perspectives on women’s rights?

What’s the history of the ERA?

The ERA’s journey has indeed been long. Suffragist and feminist Alice Paul, who was instrumental in adding the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave American women the vote, proposed a version of the ERA as early as 1923:

“Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”

Feminists proposed this amendment to the U.S. Congress several times, although it did not pass. In 1943, Paul and her supporters revised the language of this proposal and pitched it to the U.S. Congress several times. Spurred by gains in the civil rights movement and the work of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other second-wave feminists, the proposal began to garner more support. Such support was from U.S. first ladies, presidents, various politicians, and other prominent people as well as much of the American public. The proposal also generated equally prominent criticism that contributed to its undoing. Conservative activists such as Phyllis Schlafly decried the ERA as unfeminine and threatening to the social order.

After passing the U.S. Congress, thirty-eight states needed to ratify the proposal by 1979 to make it a constitutional amendment. Legislators extended the deadline to 1982, but it didn’t help since only thirty-five states ratified the ERA by that date. Nevada and Illinois ratified the amendment in the 2000s, but Congress would have to pass legislation that extends the deadline to recognize the latest two ratifications. If this deadline is approved and if one more U.S. state approves the deadline, thirty-eight states will have ratified the amendment, although some states have rescinded their previous approval of the ERA. These rescissions make a complicated matter even more complicated.

Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter ERA
Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter ERA. Source: Public Domain

What could the ERA do?

If the ERA becomes an amendment on the U.S. Constitution, it could mean so much. On a very basic level, the amendment would be a formal, written statement of rights. While the U.S. Declaration of Independence states that all people are created equal and the Constitution makes it illegal to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” various authorities have not followed these directives. They capitalized on the vague nature of the language in those documents to create circumventing loopholes or ignored the language entirely.

By addressing the rights of women directly, the ERA is more specific. The U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts could judge individual cases based on this amendment. Legislative bodies could make laws using this amendment as a guide. The ERA could create precedents to follow or to dispute, precedents that would not be subject to the whims of the political considerations of presidential administrations or legislative bodies such as the U.S. Congress or U.S. Senate. Adding the ERA to the Constitution codifies rights for women, especially for women who work in government. It could help define their rights and assist them if they have grievances. It could help them secure better pay to close the wage gap, promote fairer conditions in the workplace, and help women find equality and attain opportunity in general. As a precedent, the ERA could serve as a model for other federal, state, and local laws to grant and protect women’s rights.

What’s the history of the CEDAW and what does it do?

Women’s rights are also a primary interest of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). According to its text, governments that adhere to this convention must “commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms, including

  • to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;
  • to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and
  • to ensure the elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.”

Compared to the long, arduous journey of the ERA, the passage of the CEDAW was considerably quicker and less complicated. Working groups of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) created the text for the CEDAW in 1976. The General Assembly adopted it by a vote of 130 to zero in 1979. After the ratification of twenty member states, it became a convention in 1981. According to the UN, this passage occurred “faster than any previous human rights convention.” One notable country that hasn’t ratified the CEDAW is the United States. U.S. critics of the commission say that such international agreements threaten the sovereignty of the United States. Given the stalled progress of other pro-women initiatives such as the ERA in the country, this failure is disheartening but perhaps not that surprising.

Why isn’t the ERA the law?

While international organizations and governments CEDAW were able to draft, approve, and agree to the conditions of CEDAW (although they haven’t always abided by such conditions), the passage of the ERA continues to stall and generate debate. Why? Some people say that women don’t need the ERA. According to this perspective, U.S. women already have the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and other laws, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, to protect their civil rights. Others vehemently disagreed that the Fourteenth Amendment covers women’s rights, notably late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Current laws are inadequate to provide equal rights, say some scholars. Legal scholar and professor Catharine A. MacKinnon observed, “If we’re sexually assaulted if it isn’t within the scope of Title VII as it understands an employment relationship or Title IX in education, we don’t have any equality rights.” The ERA may help provide such rights. Given the current political climate, it is not surprising that the ERA has not passed. In fact, it seems amazing that Nevada and Illinois have ratified the ERA at all. Ideological impasses have prevented other types of political action in recent years. For instance, in 2016, members of the Republican Party refused to host hearings on whether Merrick Garland was suited to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court because Garland was a nominee of President Barack Obama, a member of the Democratic Party. Since the results of 2018 elections meant that the Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate remained in the hands of Republicans, will political deadlocks continue and possibly become even worse? Some people fear that the ERA would expand abortion and create other conditions less favorable to conservative values, so they may be loath to ratify the ERA on a state level or vote in favor of laws that extend the deadline for the ERA on a federal level. They should consider ratifying the ERA and extending its deadline. Measures such as the ERA provide legal protection.

With this legal protection, women would have the security of knowing that they have legal recourse to address any conflicts that arise. Even better, this protection may prevent conflicts from occurring in the first place. No document is perfect. But adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides rights, opportunities for growth and advancement, and peace of mind. Not bad for a mere twenty-four words.

Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.

 

On Early and Forced Marriage

by Grace Ndanu

a wedding dress on a mannequin
Where stylish manikins pose mute and chic. Source: sagesolar, Creative Commons

Most people dream of choosing their life partner. Their marriage would be one of independent and happy life. This is not the reality for many young girls who become child brides.  Early and/or forced marriage is most practiced in Sab-Saharan Africa; it is also common in the Maasai community. The Maasai, despite their poverty, have proudly maintained their traditional lifestyle and cultural identity without giving to the pressures of the modern world. The community is under a patriarchal leadership which denies young girls an opportunity to go to school. Education is withheld from girls because it is believed that educating a girl child is not a wise investment because the girl will marry into another family. Therefore, the father of the girl will opt to educate a boy.

Maasai girls are circumcised between 11 and 13. In time, she will marry a man chosen by her father in exchange for cattle and money. A Maasai woman will never be allowed to marry again. As a young girl, she will have her personal autonomy denied. If her husband is an old man who dies when she is still in her teens, she will become the property of one of her husbands’ brothers. She will be one of the multiple wives and will have many children, regardless of her health or ability to provide for them. She will rise early every day to complete her tasks including milking the cows, walking miles to water holes to wash clothes and get water, and gathering heavy loads of firewood to carry back home. If she is lucky, she will have a donkey to share her burden. She will live a life of few comforts, dependent on a husband and a family she did not choose. In between her burdensome chores of the day, the Maasai girl is also a beader – such intangible high skills built into her cultural knowledge and practices. Most of her struggles are shaped by circumstances and the challenges of her time including deep-seated patriarchal attitude.

There are several reasons for forced marriage among the Maasai. First, a desire to ‘eliminate’ the familial poverty. For impoverished families giving a daughter in marriage is a way to reduce expenses particularly if a son’s education and expenses are prioritized. Second, early pregnancies drive toward early marriage as it is seen as a safeguard against immoral behavior. Parents in the Maasai community marry off pregnant girls to protect their family status and name and to receive both dowry and ‘penalty’ payment from the man responsible for the pregnancy. Third, many early marriages occur out of desperation as a young girl seeks ‘refuge’ from neglect or orphanhood. Some girls are taken advantaged by older men who give them false promises of a better life. Girls face a lot of problems and challenges if/when she does not meet the expectations, thus creating a journey towards poverty and gender-based violence begins.

The struggle to end the practice of early marriage in Kenya, particularly among the Maasai, has slowly progressed. There are NGOs that have come seeking to eradicate early child marriages. They work together with the government to help the young girls get out of the retrogressive cultural practices by empowering the girls and enlightening the parents on matters about the education of their girls. The NGOs try to educate the girl child on her rights.

By understanding her personal rights, the goal is self-confidence and independence, and a willingness to advocate and fight for herself and for others. She will be able to choose whom to marry and when to marry. She will have fewer children. They will be healthier and better educated than the previous generation. She will not circumcise her daughters. She will have economic security. Education will enable the girl to help and support her parents, and she will never forget where she came from. Education is the key to success; it is the key to freedom.

 

The Experiences of Journalists in an Era of Crisis (Part II)

by Andy Carr

newspapers. Source: Renzo Borgatti, Creative Commons

From a human rights perspective, one key factor behind recent trends in American media might best be framed in terms of labor rights. Beneath the turmoil and headlines, a collective organizing and unionization effort at leading magazines and papers has emerged in recent years, including at Vox, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and others. Especially in media, focus has turned to the rising tide of labor unions – organizations which are formed by workers in the same sector (e.g., among journalists and related professions) to bargain collectively. Collective bargaining allows unionized workers to negotiate with a stronger hand; the more workers are included, the more their non-participation or, in extremis, walkouts, and strikes will affect their employer(s). Bargaining leads to a union contract which binds all employees and their employer (if approved by a pre-set threshold required) to baseline pay rates and other working conditions. In modern contexts, union contract conditions include working hours, overtime policies, paid leave and holidays, sick pay and health insurance, promotion qualifications and timelines, as well as equity and inclusion-oriented provisions, such as minority recruitment programs and diverse hiring initiatives. 

Journalist organizing movements follow in the footsteps of Depression-era unionizing efforts significantly set off by a call to action in the New York World-Telegram written by Heywood Broun, a famed columnist of the 1930s. The American Newspaper Guild subsequently exploded, and just “10 months after Broun’s first column, the Guild had 7,000 members, with 125 delegates from 70 papers” onboard. At the same time, as Steven Greenhouse explained in the Columbia Journalism Review last year, “many publishers [of the time] aggressively resisted unionization.” Famously, the Associated Press “fired a reporter, Morris Watson, for his pro-union activity,” leading to a lawsuit which reached the Supreme Court, Associated Press v. NLRB (1937). In that case, the Supreme Court “rejected the publishers’ arguments that their freedom of the press was being violated by federal laws” protecting unionization and collective bargaining, affirming the reach of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA). 

The NLRA remains a significant part of America’s federal law on employment and labor rights, and since its inception it has sought two broad aims: first, “to restore the equality of bargaining power” among workers and employers and, second, to “resolve the problem of depressed wages,” a ubiquitous concern in 1930s America (see Southern California Edison Co. v. Public Utilities Commission, 140 Cal. App. 4th 1085, 1100 (2006)). More than 80 years after its founding, however, the underlying goals of the NLRA remain widely unfulfilled, with nationwide union membership dropping year-over-year since at least 1983, and America’s journalists, in particular, have faced daunting challenges. To put it bluntly, journalists’ ongoing efforts to organize have met an organized, systemic response. 

Last May, Jones Day, one of the world’s largest law firms, held “a conference in its Manhattan office focused on labor and employment law in the news media industry,” an “invitation-only affair, bringing together Jones Day attorneys and media executives, in-house lawyers, and senior human resources personnel—in other words, anyone who might find themselves on the other side of a bargaining table from journalists trying to unionize.” Among the attendees were individuals from “The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Univision, and Atlantic Media, among others,” and one of the “moderators leading the conference was Patricia Dunn, a longtime [Jones Day partner based in Washington, D.C.], and a former in-house counsel for the Post.” As CJR again summarized, Jones Day, 

“with Dunn often at the helm, has in recent years become a go-to for media executives facing union drives. At a time when uncertain market forces have driven more and more newsrooms to organize, Jones Day has become notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone. Jones Day’s portfolio of media outlets includes, among many others, Slate, whose union members voted [in December 2018] to authorize a strike amid pushback from management on their demands.”

These outlets hardly cover the range of past and ongoing union-busting efforts: New York magazine, Vox, the Boston Globe all have been accused of assertive anti-union tactics in the past few years. (Among these cases, however, Vox’s unionizing efforts recently succeeded in the dramatic form: on Friday, June 7, Vox Media staffers secured an industry-defining union contract after a 29-hour marathon negotiation. The contract set minimum salaries at $56,000, included generous leave policies for parents regardless of gender and included initiatives designed to improve diversity in management, among other provisions.) 

a room of journalists with laptops and cameras
Journalists. Source: UNClimateChange, Creative Commons

Even where writers and editors have had organizing success, their gains have proved temporary. As The New Yorker reported in November 2017, just one “week before [their] sites were shuttered, the staffs of DNAinfo and Gothamist had unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East,” one of two leading industry unions in America along with NewsGuild. DNAinfo and Gothamist comprised a network of locally oriented outlets in major cities, owned by billionaire Joe Ricketts, the founder of trillion-dollar “brokerage giant” TD Ameritrade and “a major right-wing donor who … has given millions of dollars to anti-labor politicians” across the United States. Former employees, speaking to The New Yorker, reported “that, in both coded and explicit ways, management had warned [staff] repeatedly in the months before they unionized that doing so would mean that the sites would cease to exist” – a seemingly clear instance of “threatening [unionizing] employees with closure,” in violation of federal law. 

Subverting workers’ collective organizing or their free association more broadly both constitute problematic strategies under international law, as well. The International Labor Organization (ILO), for instance, has spoken unequivocally on the fundamental right of workers to coordinate collective action, including rights to “freedom of association” and “the right to collective bargaining,” per the following excerpts:

ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (June 1998), Perambulatory Dedication:

“Whereas, in seeking to maintain the link between social progress and economic growth, the guarantee of fundamental principles and rights at work is of particular significance in that it enables the persons concerned, to claim freely and on the basis of equality of opportunity, their fair share of the wealth which they have helped to generate, and to achieve fully their human potential…”

ILO Fundamental Principles, operative clause (2) (emphasis added):

“Declares that all Members, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question, have an obligation arising from the very fact of membership in the Organization to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of those Conventions, namely: 
(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining
(b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; 
(c) the effective abolition of child labour; and
(d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation…”

The UN Human Rights Council in 2008 also weighed in on corporations’ responsibilities vis-à-vis human rights, to include fundamental principles of labor rights. Although currently non-binding, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights framework describes “business enterprises as specialized organs of society performing specialized functions,” but which also are “required to comply with all applicable laws and to respect human rights” (emphasis added). The Guiding Principles emerged in response to concerns about the nexus of human rights and transnational businesses specifically, yet are framed in generalized terms. Thus, the ongoing anti-organizing efforts of managers and owners in American media may constitute violations of not just domestic labor laws, but also an emerging corpus of international legal standards that might become binding rules in coming years. 

The foregoing issues merely scratch the surface. Strong-arm labor tactics often combine with the toxicity of online media culture generally and the lawsuit-begging misconduct of particular outlets. For example, a 2018 New York article on the culture at Vice Media cites a “senior manager [who] once joked that the company’s hiring strategy had a ’22 Rule’: ‘Hire 22-year-olds, pay them $22,000, and work them 22 hours a day.’” Vice, then, might provide a serviceable avatar for American media problems – a culture of toxicity, outright abuse, and constant uncertainty about reporters’ job security combined with increasingly “widely lauded” output, such as Vice’s work with HBO and a documentary which “offered one of the first looks inside the Islamic State,” from 2014. Vice, notably, has been embroiled in back-and-forth union negotiations since January 2018, prompting over “75 current and former writers for HBO” to sign a petition requesting Vice Media “sign a strong union contract.” 

With the enduring stalemate over unionizing efforts at BuzzFeed News and another round of layoffs in recent weeks—including the total elimination of Ebony’s online team, allegedly without pay for work already done, earlier in June—a complex push and pull continues. Media organizing successes and setbacks like that above highlight the urgency of needed protections.