(Mint Press) – Despite the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, slavery refuses to die. In the United States, approximately 100,000 individuals have been victimized in what is now referred to as “human trafficking,” an illicit trade that enslaves individuals to a life where they have no freedom or rights and are controlled by the traffickers.
Traffickers like: Lucinda Shackleford of Charlotte, N.C., who in 2011, was indicted with charges of forced labor and promoting slave trafficking for her treatment of then-17-year-old illegal immigrant Carlos Alberto Montes Salvador. Or dubious businesses like You Zhi Li, Yang Shen and Jun Hu Chinese acrobatic troupe visiting Las Vegas being arrested on involuntary servitude charges for holding the 21-member troupe — ages 14 to 17— against their will and forcing them to perform without compensation. In each case the victims were working in the United States, a land where slavery was abolished.
The realities of slavery
It is estimated that there are now between 10 million and 30 million slaves worldwide, with a 2005 International Labor Organization (ILO) report setting the minimum estimate at 12.3 million. There are more slaves today than at any other point in humanity’s history. Approximately 600,000 to 820,000 men, women and children are trafficked internationally, according to the U.S. Department of State, with approximately 70 percent being female and up to 50 percent being minors.
According to a 2004 University of California Berkeley study, human trafficking falls into five sectors: prostitution and sex services — in which 46 percent of all that are trafficked fall into, domestic service (27 percent), agriculture (10 percent), sweatshops or factories (5 percent) and restaurant and hotel labor (four percent). Child exploitation, mail-order brides and entertainment purposes constitute the remainder.
The ILO defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” The ILO recognizes that “the menace of any penalty” need not be penal in nature (although it could be), but the denial of rights and privileges — which could range from threats of violence and/or death to the victim and/or her relatives and friends, psychological assault, financial attacks — such as linking the victim to debt, denial of earned wages or blackmailing — and threats of arrest or judicial punishment.
Despite slavery existing for most of the world’s history, this country only recognized the threat relatively recently. In 2000, the federal government passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA), which criminalized human trafficking and established punishments of up to 20 years or longer per offense.
The extent of slavery in the United States
Ming-Wei, an ambitious 19-year-old from Fujian, China, showed how easy it is to fall into slavery, according to a WGBH News report. Ming-Wai entered into a smuggler’s agreement where she agreed to pay $75,000 to get into America. Ming-Wai was given a fake passport with her photo on it and was put on a plane to New York, where she was instructed to plead for political asylum.
Once in New York, Ming-Wei was told she must pay back the smuggler the cost of $8,000 for bringing her to the U.S., which would quadruple from what she was told once room and board is factored in. To pay off her debts, she was made to work in the various restaurants of a wealthy Chinese family for less than $100 a month. She was forced to work from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. two weeks straight without a single day off.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley spoke on the issue of domestic labor held against their will. “Women in other countries are told ‘we’ll provide transport for you to the United States’ and once they get here they’re told you owe us money for that,” Coakley said. “And they will be put to work. Sometimes, it’s in a factory or in a particular industry, and sometimes it’s sex trafficking, but they are made to believe, you know, that they’re going to have a job here, that they’ll have a new life. But there’s a little piece of the contract left out that you have to pay off your expenses, and it’s really the whole idea of involuntary servitude that’s the other side of labor trafficking that we worry about.”
Ming-Wei reached out for help at the New York Asian Women’s Center, which offered her and those like her protection and assistance from the systematic abuse they are subjected to. While Ming-Wei, 38 now, is now safe, the threat to her family remains. She still works in the restaurant business to pay off her debt to her smuggler.
Nita Belles is the Central Oregon Regional Director for Oregonians Against Trafficking Humans. She is also the author of “In Our Backyard: A Christian Perspective on Human Trafficking in the United States.” In conversation with Mint Press, Belles discussed the realities of slavery in America today. “While labor trafficking victims tend to be immigrants, it is not necessarily true that sex trafficking victims come from broken or poor homes. There are recruiters in our junior and senior highs that are targeting anyone that they can get.”
Belles explained that there is no model for who can be trafficked. It is possible that anyone anywhere can become susceptible. It is therefore important that young people are introduced to the dangers of trafficking early on, that communities and schools take a more vigilant stance on trafficking and that politicians do more to investigate and stop trafficking in all its forms.
Most of the attention given to human trafficking in this country revolves around sexual trafficking. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, 40 percent of all human trafficking cases opened for investigation between January 2008 and June 2010 were for the sexual trafficking of a minor. The majority of children sold for sex are between the ages of 12 and 14.
These are girls tracked and lured by “recruiters” or abducted, routinely raped, beaten into submission and sometimes even branded. Attempts to run away are often met with abuse.
As reported in the Dunn County (Wis.) News, Julie was a 15-year-old runaway. Coming from a broken home, she had no resources — no hirable skills, no money, few friends and nowhere to stay. She did have her body — which meant more to others than to herself. She was “sold” to clients in exchange for room and board.
The FBI estimates that approximately 293,000 American children are currently at risk of being exploited and trafficked for sex. Eighty-three percent of all confirmed sex trafficking cases in this country involve American citizens as the victims. Many of the girls abducted and trafficked travel the same routes as the drug trade, such as the I-95 and I-5 corridors. Sex slaves are readily sold and traded online discreetly and conveniently. Many former drug runners now find it easier and more profitable to traffick human flesh.
In most jurisdictions, soliciting a prostitute is a misdemeanor that is rarely prosecuted. According to the Demi and Ashton (DNA) Foundation, the global sex slavery market nets $32 billion per year in profit. Seventy-six percent of all transactions for sex with underage girls happen over the Internet, and in its combined effort to fight human trafficking, the U.S. Government spends 300 times more per year fighting the Drug War.
As such most traffickers do not fear apprehension.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that of the 2.8 million children that run away every year, as many as one-third of them will be lured or recruited into the world of prostitution and pornography. In addition, many of the children that becomes trafficking victims come from the foster care system, as pointed out by Think Progress. In New York, 85 percent of the states’ trafficking victims were involved with the child welfare system. In Florida, 70 percent of the states’ trafficking victims came from foster care.
Those that “fall through the cracks” tend not to receive the attention and due diligence needed to protect these children, address their needs and prevent them from being revictimized. Many are processed through the juvenile justice system as prostitutes and criminalized. Despite being victims, these trafficked girls are treated by the legal system as perpetrators, continuing the cycle of abuse.
“T”, who was born into foster care and trafficked at age 10, told Congress, “In most of my 14 different placements in foster care homes, I was raped and attached to a check. I understood very early that I could be raped, cared for and connected to money. It was therefore easy to go from that to a pimp, and at least the pimp told me that he loved me.”
Agricultural and industrial slavery
Sex slavery is not the only type of slavery that exists in the U.S. — slave labor is equally profitable to traffickers.
As published by Southern Arizona Against Slavery, Mary was born in Mexico. At age 17, she was persuaded to move to the United States in order to find a job. Her “coyote” promised to take care of her, but when she arrived in the U.S., she was forced to take a factory job packing vegetables. She was escorted to and from work, was not paid, was forced to take drugs and were regularly abused. She was held prisoner in her apartment and was only allowed to leave to go to work.
She was threatened every day with the possibility of abuse from immigration, but she eventually escaped with her son — she is currently awaiting a decision from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about whether she can stay in the country.
Unlike sex trafficking, labor trafficking is little-talked about in this country. The VTVPA defines labor trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.”
There are three types of labor trafficking. Bonded labor, or debt bondage, is the most widely used method of enslavement. Victims typically must pay off a debt or a loan in which the terms were not defined beforehand. The proceeds of this labor is not applied, however, to the liquidation of the debt — establishing the debt as perpetual. Ultimately, the sum of the laborer’s efforts will exceed any investment paid to obtain the victim.
Forced labor assumes ownership of the victim. The victim is abducted, forced to work against their will under the threat of punishment and their freedom is restricted. Forced labor situations include domestic servitude, agricultural labor, sweatshops, janitorial and other service industry labor and public begging.
Finally, child labor involves forcing minors to work in a manner that is likely to be hazardous “to the health and/or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development of children and can interfere with their education.“ The ILO estimates that 246 million children between the ages five and 17 are debt bonded or committed to forced labor in militia operations, prostitution, pornography, the drug and arms trade and other illicit activities.
According to the article, “Forced Labor in the United States: A Contemporary Problem in Need of a Contemporary Solution”, about 50,000 individuals are working in the United States under forced labor conditions. While there are currently fewer forced laborers in the United States than pre-emancipation, as laws limiting slavery have laxed globally, there has never been a time when the exploitation of human labor has been so severe.
In the chocolate industry, slaves — particularly child laborers — regularly work the cocoa plantations, scarred from machete cuts and crippling amputations. In 2001, Washington moved to address this outrage.
“We felt like the public ought to know about it, and we ought to take some action to try to stop it,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who, together with Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, spearheaded the response. “How many people in America know that all this chocolate they are eating — candies and all of those wonderful chocolates — is being produced by terrible child labor?”
The Harkin-Engel Protocol, a chocolate industry-wide agreement signed in 2001, called for the end of forced child labor by 2005. This deadline has been extended to 2008, and then 2010. Almost all of the major chocolate producers (with the exception of Kraft-Cadbury, who is predicting it will take 20 years to end child slavery in cocoa bean harvesting) have predicted full compliance with the protocol in 10 years.
The chocolate industry has lobbied hard and stopped Washington from moving forward with any prohibitive legislation. According to a study by Tulane University, the industry’s response has been lackluster: 97 percent of the Ivory Coast’s chocolate farmers were not contacted in regard to child labor from the chocolate manufacturers.
Unlike sex trafficking, labor traffickers tend to be the rich and powerful. Many domestic forced laborers are held by diplomats with A-3, G-5, NATO-7 or B-1 visas and are therefore immune from prosecution. Many forced laborers hold such visas in their own regard. Many of the farms that utilize forced labor are owned by large corporations that are major political donors.
Typically, forced labor prosecutions involve individuals that have neither the money nor the political pull to convince the government to look the other way.
On ending slavery
In conversation with CNN, Rob Morris, president and co-founder of Love146, an advocacy group combating child sex trafficking, spoke of the challenges of ending slavery, “I think first of all it will take the audacity to believe that we can end it. Considering the overwhelming stats of how many slaves exist today and how much money the sale of human beings generates, some would call it naive or idealistic to believe we can end it. I prefer to think that it is audacious. And it has only been people of audacity that have ever changed the world.”
Ending slavery will not be an easy proposition; it may be, in fact, the greatest challenge humanity faces. Addressing it forces society to challenge nearly everything it holds dear — is cheap coffee and chocolate worth a 7-year-old’s hard labor? Is America willing to admit that it is liable in the sex trade industry because the country’s drive for safe streets pushes millions of endangered girls through the juvenile justice system and ultimately back on the streets?
Are the parents next door liable because they are uncomfortable talking to their children about sex and personal protection?
“Slavery is an issue that is hidden in the open — we choose not to ask questions about the price of goods that we buy or the labor that produces those goods,” said Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of Education and Outreach Rabbis for Human Rights in North America. “But once we know how to recognize slavery, we have to act and we have to help victims.”
The fight against slavery is a fight that must be won. Improved services and protections for immigrants, increased funding for sex education and peer counseling in middle and high school and increased community policing are all steps toward turning back the tide. But, as mentioned by Nita Belles, the impetus to fight slavery is a personal one. By changing one’s habits and by being more vocal and vigilant on the matter, resistance to this plight will build.
Hopefully, one more person will not have to endure the trauma of being owned.
If you know someone in danger of being targeted in human trafficking, please know that help is available. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center is available 24 hours a day at 888-373-7888.