Modern slavery is everywhere, and women principally are its victims.
Whether kidnapped by a single deviant, as appears to be the case in Cleveland, or trafficked en masse across national borders for purposes of labor or sex exploitation, women’s lives are being stolen from them. Unlike Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, whose ordeals currently dominate the national news, most victims suffer — and sometimes die — in silence and anonymity.
In the last decade, human trafficking and enslavement worldwide has exploded, rising from more than 12 million victims in 2005 to nearly 21 million victims in 2012. Everyone from organized crime syndicates to street gangs has (re)discovered the cheap cost of a reusable good — human life.
According to a 2012 report by State Attorney General Kamala Harris, global profits from human trafficking surpassed $32 billion last year with almost 18,000 people smuggled into the United States destined for forced labor in industries and homes across our country. Shockingly, thousands more are American citizens — most often vulnerable girls, many of them runaways — who are lured via social media and other means into forced prostitution.
These statistics are daunting, but there is hope — hope born of human kindness.
“S” was brought to the United States from Indonesia to work as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple in La Cañada — a suburb of Los Angeles. The family confiscated her passport, ordered her not to speak to anyone outside the home and forced her to work without pay 16 hours a day, seven days a week. If she tried to escape, they warned, she would be raped, arrested and left to starve in prison, or captured by thugs who would harvest her organs and leave her to die in the street.
The family confiscated her passport, ordered her not to speak to anyone outside the home. … If she tried to escape, they warned, she would be raped, arrested and left to starve in prison, or captured by thugs who would harvest her organs and leave her to die in the street.
Despite these threats, “S” repeatedly tried to escape. The first time, she approached members of a construction crew working across the street, asking them to take her to the Indonesian Consulate, but they did not know where to go. Her next attempt was with a local plumber working down the block.
Plumber: A lady approached me across the street with a note and request me to call the embassy. I called, and they claim they did not know her. I told her I had to finish my job. I’ll try to come back out to talk to her more.
Attorney: What happened when you came back out?
Plumber: She was gone. I never saw her again.
This testimony was taken from the trial of a civil lawsuit brought by Bet Tzedek Legal Services with pro bono co-counsel at O’Melveny & Myers LLP.
Ultimately, “S” was freed because those initial encounters gave her courage to call an American friend, who alerted the police. The traffickers were prosecuted criminally and were sued civilly by Bet Tzedek, resulting in what is believed to be the first successful civil jury verdict under the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2005. At trial, the traffickers claimed that “S” was a guest in their home and argued that she fabricated the enslavement story in order to obtain a T-Visa, a special visa reserved by the federal government for trafficking victims.
“S” is among many victims whose stories have a happy ending because complete strangers recognized their plight and took action. The next three women, all clients of Bet Tzedek, never would have escaped without help.
“A” was trafficked from Peru by a college professor who forced her to work as an unpaid domestic servant. A tenant on the professor’s property sensed something was wrong and gave her Bet Tzedek’s phone number. Following a series of secret meetings between “A” and her attorney, the professor became suspicious, drugged “A” and dumped her in Tijuana. Bet Tzedek found “A,” alerted the Peruvian Consulate and secured her release.
“J” was brought to Los Angeles from the Philippines to work as a nanny. Once here, she was confined to the family condo, without pay, without her passport and without access to a phone or computer. Her first attempt to escape failed when “J” panicked and rejected the assistance of a health care practitioner who tried to help her. A second attempt succeeded when the condo doorman, who asked her if something was wrong, helped her to sneak out of the building and run away.
“M” left an abusive husband in Ethiopia to work as a domestic servant in California, even though she spoke no English. Her employers beat her repeatedly, causing multiple injuries, including broken teeth. After one particularly brutal beating, she kicked open the back door of the house where she was being held and escaped. “M” lived on the streets for almost a month before a woman in a park approached her to ask if she needed help and took her to Little Ethiopia, where community members found her shelter. During her captivity, she had frequented many public places with the family, including Disneyland.
“These stories are all too common,” said Kay Buck, executive director of Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides services to trafficking victims and trains law enforcement officials, first responders and legal advocates how to recognize and assist victims. CAST has spearheaded anti-trafficking efforts resulting in the creation of stronger laws, including the 2005 Victims Protection Act and the 2010 Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires any retailer or manufacturer with annual worldwide revenues of more than $100 million to disclose its efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking.
These laws, and others at the federal level, form the backbone of a growing structure designed to combat trafficking. But laws are meaningless without civic participation.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Be aware. Trafficking victims are everywhere, and they often exhibit characteristics similar to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Physical indicators may include bruises and other evidence of beatings and assault, as well as untreated critical illnesses or sexually transmitted diseases. Indicators of psychological distress may include poor dental health, depression and extreme anxiety. First responders should look for lack of personal possessions and numerous inconsistencies in personal history.
Step up. If you see someone who needs help, call the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) at (888) 539-2373 or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at (888) 373-7888. Both are 24-hour hotlines. You can also text INFO or HELP to BeFree (233733).
Be informed. Consumers can make a difference. To find out more about the business practices of companies you buy from, go to slaveryfootprint.org or free2work.org.
Get involved. CAST and Bet Tzedek could not help nearly as many clients without the assistance of pro bono attorneys and other volunteers. To donate your time, go to bettzedek.org/volunteer or castla.org/volunteer.
Elissa Barrett is vice president and general counsel of Bet Tzedek Legal Services. Kevin Kish is director of Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project.