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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

    
 

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Slavery Slips Through Cracks in U.S. Policy

http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/2032

 

by Michelle Chen (bio)

Even though Americans are increasingly aware that human trafficking takes place, an array of circumstances conspire to protect the trade, and a weak social response leaves freed victims in need.

Jul 5 - Nearly sixty years after the international community declared it a crime against humanity, slavery today is far from banished. Involuntary servitude persists in developed and underdeveloped regions, and the United States remains one of the major destinations for traffickers and their captives. But according to activists and researchers, despite recent progress in anti-trafficking policies and enforcement, what many consider the basest form of human exploitation continues to thrive in the US.

Pointing to inadequate enforcement of human rights laws, lagging community awareness, and a dearth of resources for victims, anti-slavery advocates say that behind the crime of forced labor is a societal failure to protect the most deeply subjugated.

According to the research and advocacy group Free the Slaves, forced labor is largely concentrated in illegal or minimally regulated industries: nearly half of trafficking cases involve forced prostitution, about 27 percent involve domestic service, and manufacturing and farm work collectively account for approximately 15 percent.

 

Public awareness of the issue has risen slowly with the landmark federal anti-trafficking law, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, passed in 2000. The act provides funding for anti-trafficking programs and offers legal protections for survivors, including legal resident status. The legislation defines its target, "severe trafficking," as the commercial trade of human beings for purposes of labor or sexual services that involves "force, fraud or coercion."

But grassroots advocates for forced labor victims have a simpler definition. "We use the word ‘trafficking,’ but that’s really a euphemism," said Bill Bernstein, deputy director of the Texas-based social service group Mosaic Family Services. "What we’re really talking about is modern-day slavery."

Bernstein, whose group handles a constant flow of slavery cases, listed some typical scenarios: an offer to earn good wages and study lures a teenage girl abroad, where she is forced to work eighteen hours a day as a housekeeper. Aided by a smuggler, a young man’s passage across the US-Mexico border ends with a crushing debt, to be repaid through captive manual labor.

"There is no such thing as a typical trafficking case," said Bernstein, but he noted a common thread among victims: "They’ll be promised something, which ends up being very different when they end up where they’re going."

According to government estimates, each year, 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the US. Though more trafficking victims are being uncovered each year, so far, only about 600 victims have been officially "certified" under the statutes of the federal anti-trafficking law.

The public’s knowledge of the issue is still too weak to inspire community vigilance.

To anti-slavery activists, the gap between the official records and the vague estimates reveals that the slave labor market continues to defy both the law and efforts to quantify the problem. According to Jolene Smith, executive director of Free the Slaves, "We have failed miserably as a country in rooting out trafficking victims and traffickers."

Intimidation, Lack of Awareness Keep Forced Labor Victims Shackled

    

Sometimes, release from captivity comes when a vigilant neighbor alerts a social service organization. Or police might discover a victim unexpectedly when they raid an underground operation, such as a brothel. Service providers say that in any case, for victims who are stifled by fear and overlooked by the public, the prospect of escape depends largely on luck.

In Smith’s view, the public’s knowledge of the issue is still too weak to inspire community vigilance. "We know that people … are not asking hard questions of what’s going on in their own communities," she said. "They’re not demanding that there be investigations, because they don’t know that it could happen in their community."

Layli Miller-Muro, executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center, a social service organization serving immigrant women, finds it alarming that despite the group’s outreach campaigns in immigrant communities, they currently serve only a few "lucky" trafficking survivors. Organizations that offer assistance for survivors, she said, are still unable "to reach the ones who most need to be reached."

Yet advocates say that in addition to a lack of public awareness and outreach, walls of fear and cultural repression also stand between service providers and people in captivity.

Since traffickers often enjoy high social status in their communities, said Miller-Muro, victims may be "worried about how they will look if they oppose this powerful person [or] this well-known diplomat." Service providers have observed that even some organizations embedded in local ethnic communities are afraid to publicly advocate for victims, fearing public backlash.

Class lines have run through several high-profile cases involving foreign dignitaries or businesspeople charged with abusing workers they brought into the country. In the case of Lakireddy Bali Reddy, for example, a wealthy California businessman was charged in 2000 with importing young girls from his home village in India, forcing them to work in the buildings and restaurants he owned, and repeatedly sexually abusing them.

Reddy ultimately received a plea bargain involving $2 million in restitution and an eight-year prison term. Although activists decried the sentence as too lenient, the millionaire’s public image had nearly enabled him to elude law enforcement completely. The Immigration and Naturalization Service investigated Reddy’s immigration record in 1997, but, as an immigration official told reporters after the allegations finally surfaced, the agency determined only that he was a "professionally educated gentleman, with widespread corporate interests, financial interests. There was nothing to indicate any criminal conduct."

The psychological grip of enslavement is typically compounded by a terror of government authority that traffickers seed in their captives.

Service providers point to retaliation, against a survivor or family members, as one of the major threats that silences victims. According to Florrie Burke, senior director of international programs at the New York-based victims’ services group Safe Horizon, among the cases tracked by the organization, "We have had family members kidnapped, threatened, harassed, in many different countries."

A vendetta could easily outlive a prison term; the Department of Justice reports that sentences for convicted traffickers in 2003 ranged from 33 to 270 months.

Fear of Authority Strengthens Slavery’s Grip

According to researchers and advocates, the psychological grip of enslavement is typically compounded by a terror of government authority that traffickers seed in their captives, convincing them that any attempt to escape would lead to jail or deportation.

"I [was] afraid of police," recalled "Kim," who was forced to work in captivity in a sweatshop in American Samoa (see Sidebar: "Captive Workforce"). She thought she might be arrested if she left the factory, she said, because "I don’t have my passport, I don’t have my work permit. … He keep everything." Her boss, like many other traffickers, had deterred escape by confiscating the immigration documents of the more than 250 Vietnamese and Chinese workers enslaved in the operation.

Complicit local officials helped stoke the workers’ fear of government, according to an investigation by the advocacy group Vietnam Labor Watch. The organization reported that the American Samoan government detained and deported employees who tried to seek help. Furthermore, during the period of enslavement from 1999 to 2001, government authorities took little action to enforce labor laws against the factory, even when investigations by the US Department of Labor uncovered severe mistreatment.

Although in general, government authority might not directly abet traffickers, as it reportedly did the American Samoa case, victims’ advocates say that immigrant survivors do face a very real danger of being treated as criminals by law enforcement. Amid increasingly aggressive policies against undocumented immigration, they argue, fear of the law is not unjustified.

Although federal law entitles trafficking victims to special immigration status, bureaucratic missteps could be leaving an untold number of victims overlooked. Given the high possibility that an immigration official could take notice of a victim’s undocumented status but not the underlying forced labor situation, Smith speculated that in all likelihood, "there are trafficking victims being deported every day."

Negotiating with Law Enforcement

The gulf of distrust and uncertainty between government institutions and people in forced labor situations poses an obstacle both for law enforcement -- which requires cooperation from witnesses in order to prosecute traffickers -- and for survivors -- who must commit to cooperating in order to obtain their entitlements as victims.

Some victims’ advocates express concern that in the criminal process, repeated interrogations could be extremely stressful for victims, who frequently suffer deep psychological scars.

Kavitha Sreeharsha, a staff attorney with the advocacy group Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, said that for many survivors, the investigation process could be "revictimizing … many of them find it very hard to recount what has happened to them."

Amid increasingly aggressive policies against undocumented immigration, fear of the law is not unjustified.

Service providers have also complained that investigators are at times reluctant to communicate with advocates about developments in a case, for fear of disclosing legally sensitive information.

Some advocates are urging a more "victim-centered" approach to anti-trafficking police work, helping train local officers to be more sensitive to victims’ needs -- for instance, by delaying the interrogation process to allow survivors time to recover.

To help officers more readily identify and help provide assistance to victims, the Department of Health and Human Services has administered trainings in various communities under the "Operation Rescue and Restore" anti-trafficking program.

"Our task in the trafficking program," said Program Director Steven Wagner, "is to get any law enforcement official, at the federal and the local level, to be aware of the phenomenon of trafficking and to screen for victims." But he conceded: "Training federal and local law enforcement is not like throwing on a light switch. … We’re in a long term project, here."

To advocates, the rate of progress seems glacial compared to the urgency of the problem. "There is still a huge gap in education," said Smith. "Most local law enforcement officials have no idea what watch signs to look for, for trafficking victims."

Freed, but Not Compensated

Although federal aid for trafficking survivors under the anti-trafficking act is contingent on cooperation with a criminal investigation, a stark legal reality is that the vast majority of cases never enter a courtroom.

From fiscal years 2001 to 2004, the federal government launched 340 investigations and charged 162 defendants under federal trafficking statutes. The State Department reported 32 formal charges under the anti-trafficking act in 2004.

Namju Cho, policy and communications director of the California-based social service group Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), said that after going through the rigors of a criminal investigation only to have their cases rejected by prosecutors, "the clients are sometimes devastated. … They’re wondering what they did wrong."

Critics argue that prosecutors are biased in selecting cases to prosecute, focusing primarily on cases involving large groups of victims, or sex trafficking crimes, which tend to capture greater public attention.

"Prosecutors have a lot on their plate," remarked Miller-Muro of Tahirih. "And unfortunately they haven’t been considering trafficking cases that are not as sexy as mass raids on brothels."

The nature of the informal economy could also undercut the legal grounding of a trafficking case. Anti-trafficking activists point out that enslaved domestic workers, like workers in unregulated industries in general, have difficulty accessing the legal system because they are not covered by the protections of the National Labor Relations Act.

Moreover, said Cho, since domestic labor conditions are largely shielded from public view, "It’s their word against the trafficker’s word … There are no witnesses."

Absent a full-fledged trial and criminal conviction, recourse can still be pursued through out-of-court settlements, or plea-bargains. In addition, the 2003 reauthorization of the anti-trafficking law established a civil right of action, so victims whose cases are not heard in criminal court can sue for monetary restitution and back wages.

    

Nonetheless, formal compensation does not factor heavily into the recovery process for many victims: CAST, which has served hundreds of survivors, has reported that about half of clients choose not to pursue legal action. Often, said Smith, survivors "may just want help getting home, or just maybe want some counseling … And then they move on."

Struggling to Restore Survivors

Federal policy straddles the two pillars of anti-trafficking work: restitution and relief, and critics cite shortcomings in both aspects.

Even with federal funding, organizations are challenged by basic capacity issues, such as providing clients with appropriate language services or shelters that can accommodate the needs of people who have endured the trauma and isolation of slavery.

At CAST, which is unique among service providers in its exclusive focus on forced labor situations, each caseworker juggles about twenty clients, and the group’s all-female shelter is consistently packed.

"We’re getting calls almost on a daily basis to receive more clients," said Cho, "and we’re just not able to."

Miller-Muro said that assistance for victims is often "unnecessarily delayed or sometimes denied," because the certification process entangles the work of service providers with the law enforcement system. According to Free the Slaves, the certification from law enforcement that is required for official victim status may take months. The application process for the T-visa, a special immigration document granted to trafficking survivors, may take up to a year.

The State Department recently reported that of the 520 T-visa applications the federal government received in fiscal year 2004, it approved just 136. Another 92 are still pending, but the rest were denied.

Some advocates are frustrated with the legal conditions attached to federal assistance under the anti-trafficking law, arguing that policies against forced labor should not muddle the goal of punishing traffickers with the relief of victims.

Service providers report that given few other options, many trafficking survivors eventually agree to endure the criminal investigation process in order to obtain federal assistance. However, noting that under the Violence Against Women Act, immigrant domestic abuse survivors receive immigration relief with no such restrictions, Cho argued, "We don’t agree that victims of trafficking should be held at a higher standard than any other kinds of victims of crime are."

From the perspective of grassroots anti-slavery activists, justice for those who have endured forced labor and captivity is not limited to prosecuting wrongdoers; they say survivors need more than a court verdict to begin to heal.

"Victims need services," said Burke. "And not just to make them good witnesses, but because they’re human beings, and they’ve had their human rights violated."

 

Activists Work to Expose Roots of Modern Day Slavery

by Michelle Chen (bio)

With thousands caught up in human trafficking, their advocates are addressing the underlying causes behind today’s forced labor market, looking to reform law enforcement, humanitarian aid and labor policy.

"Slavery Slips Through Cracks in U.S. Policy," appeared on July 5, 2005.

Jul 19 - Today, Americans typically use the term "slavery" to evoke an abominable history of deep racism and forced labor. Meanwhile, the buying, selling and exploitation of workers that persists right now throughout the world often goes unnamed -- and unnoticed -- even as an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people are brought into the United States each year and forced to work against their will.

Contemporary abolitionists say that modern-day slavery represents the convergence of inequality, poverty and globalization. Those who trade human beings, they say, are capitalizing on market demands created by social and government systems that permit this most extreme brand of exploitation.

Yet activists argue that slavery should not be viewed as an inevitability dictated by economic realities. Instead, they are working to raise awareness about the underlying causes behind today’s forced labor market and to reform priorities in law enforcement, humanitarian aid and labor policy.

Common Struggles Lead to Extreme Exploitation

According to the US State Department, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are "trafficked," or forced into exploitative captive work situations, across international borders each year. Worldwide, the government estimates that human trafficking is a $9.5 billion-a-year industry, rivaling the illicit trades in arms and drugs.

People who are channeled into forced labor in the US are frequently pulled by the same desperation that leads other impoverished immigrant workers to cross borders in pursuit of economic opportunity, explained Bill Bernstein, deputy director of Mosaic Family Services, a Texas-based social service organization that assists trafficking survivors,

"They may think they’re coming for a certain position, or maybe it even starts off as smuggling, where they agree to pay the [trafficker] something," Bernstein said. "But once they get here, the dynamic changes, and they become completely subject to the person’s will."

Ann Jordan, director of the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons at the human rights organization Global Rights, said in many cases, fluid international trade networks interact with economic stratification, oppression of women and other vulnerable groups, social instability and civil conflict, to provide traffickers with a constant stream of displaced, transitory workers.

"You had slavery long before capitalism," said Jesse Sage, associate director of the internationally focused American Anti-Slavery Group. "It’s an institution that’s quite durable." But, he added, as the global economy has rapidly expanded, "the trade in human beings… is as a result more extensive."

Advocates for immigrant workers say the gears of the modern-day slave trade are greased by misguided and inadequate government policies. An increasingly militarized border and strict immigration laws force many immigrants into underground and unregulated labor markets.

Critics fear that authorities are failing to address slavery as a pervasive human rights abuse, not unique to any economic sector.

In effect, Jordan said, the population of potential trafficking victims includes "everybody who comes to this country without a visa to work."

Instead of hard-line law enforcement policies against undocumented immigrants, human rights and labor groups call for a broad-based, humanitarian approach, placing slavery on a continuum of exploitation in the global labor system.

In their view, to uproot the market forces that breed slavery, the government should improve worker protections, reform the immigration system to allow more immigrants to access the mainstream workforce, and foster the independent efforts of organizations that work directly with affected communities.

Making Labor Laws Work

Anti-slavery advocates say the key to a more rational anti-trafficking policy is a stronger, more comprehensive labor law enforcement system, which could stem not only trafficking but also the other exploitative labor practices that feed into it.

Steve Lize, an organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based farmworker group focused on migrant labor abuses, said, "We’ve come across slavery cases as the worst form of abuse that farm workers experience." Typically, he said, seasonal farm workers are "working in sweatshop conditions in the fields. And those conditions could easily tip over into slavery."

Jolene Smith, executive director of Free the Slaves, said that due to a shortage of labor inspectors, "the Department of Labor is having a really difficult time monitoring every business that they need to monitor. And it’s no surprise then, that the industries where we find the most victims of trafficking are those industries where there’s the least monitoring going on."

In various workers’ rights campaigns, the CIW has pressed government regulators to hold corporations accountable for labor violations perpetrated at all levels of production, including farm subcontractors that use slave labor.

After several successful court battles against exploitative employers that supply food industry corporations, the Immokalee Workers won their most significant victory yet in March with an unprecedented labor agreement with Taco Bell and its parent corporation, Yum! Brands. Ending a four-year boycott against Taco Bell, the agreement established a code of conduct for agricultural employers and committed the corporation to paying higher prices for Florida tomatoes to boost the incomes of workers. Moreover, the agreement empowered the CIW to monitor working conditions and hold Taco Bell accountable for violations of the code of conduct throughout the supply chain.

Lize predicted that the regulatory model launched through the Taco Bell agreement could set a precedent for other worker organizing efforts, providing consumers more opportunities to apply direct pressure to industries rife with forced and exploited labor.

Slavery Pushed Onto Ideological Battleground

While prosecutions of trafficking cases have increased since the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, government statistics suggest that action from federal law enforcement has aggregated around sex trafficking cases.

The Department of Justice reported last year that from fiscal years 2001 to 2003, sex trafficking crimes accounted for two-thirds of criminal cases filed under the federal anti-trafficking act, and over 80 percent of the 28 convictions issued. In fiscal year 2004, all 32 convictions related to the Act involved sex crimes.

Yet according to the research of Free the Slaves, less than half of trafficking cases in the US involve forced prostitution. More than a quarter are in domestic work, about 10 percent in the agricultural sector, and nine percent combined in factory and restaurant work.

Smith said that evidence that the majority of slavery cases are not in the commercial sex trade "doesn’t minimize the importance of fighting [forced prostitution], but it just means that we need to widen our perspectives, particularly the perspectives of law enforcement and social service providers."

Some anti-slavery activists assert that the government’s apparent focus on the sex industry hedges around the deeper causes and implications of human trafficking. While criticizing law enforcement’s overall response to human trafficking crimes as inadequate, activists also say that what little action has been taken has concentrated primarily on an industry that is already criminalized.

This is contrasted to systemic labor abuses in otherwise legal industries, which tend to be harder for law enforcement to spot, and more politically complex. Critics fear that authorities, and the public as a whole, are failing to address slavery as a pervasive human rights abuse, not unique to any economic sector.

Rather than prioritizing one form of slavery over others, many activists draw connections between sex trafficking and slavery in "legal" but minimally regulated labor markets.

Generally, said Lize, an impoverished, transitory population, combined with the absence of enforceable legal protections, blur the lines between the migrant farm workforce and the sexual exploitation of women. Among undocumented laborers, he said, "women are forced into prostitution through the same kind of patterns [in which] workers are forced into slavery in the agricultural system."

Smith pointed out that even among slaves in sectors other than the sex industry, "[victims] may not be prostituted on the street, but they also suffer sexual abuse," revealing that in slave conditions, subjugation can take various forms.

Since slavery emerges wherever opportunities to sell forced labor arise, argue anti-slavery activists, an effective anti-trafficking policy should be similarly wide-ranging.

But some advocates discern a conservative moral agenda in federal anti-trafficking policy.

In its 2005 report on human trafficking, the State Department specifically referred to the prostitution industry as a cause of enslavement, stating, "prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing, and fuels trafficking in persons."

To many anti-slavery activists, however, this emphasis on prostitution indicates a simplistic and politicized policy that impedes deeper efforts to respond to enslavement throughout the economic structure.

On an international level, Global Rights and other anti-slavery groups say that the moral undertones in the State Department’s anti-trafficking policy could be choking off vital funding streams for non-governmental organizations that carry out international anti-trafficking programs funded by the US.

The 2003 reauthorization act of the federal anti-trafficking law specifically precludes funding for any non-US non-governmental organization unless it takes an explicit position "that it does not promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution." According to Global Rights, the Department of Justice recommended last year that the so-called "gag rule" be extended to US-based anti-trafficking organizations.

A coalition of domestic and international social service organizations has criticized the policy as a violation of free expression rights as well as a political intrusion into the relationship between service providers and clients.

Binding the issue of slavery up in the issue of legalizing prostitution, Jordan said, "deflects from an investigation of the real causes, the real underlying issues."

According to Namju Cho, director of policy and communications with the advocacy organization Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, couching trafficking as a category of crime, rather than a multifaceted humanitarian problem, will neither stop the trade in slaves nor alleviate their exploitation.

"Let’s talk about what’s happening in those originating countries," she said. "And let’s talk about globalization. Let’s talk about economic opportunities. Because at the end of the day, if they didn’t need a job, and they didn’t need money, they wouldn’t be here."

© 2005 The NewStandard