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The truth about human trafficking
Modern-day slavery

March 4, 2005 | Page 12

JOSH GRYNIEWICZ reports on the horror of human trafficking in the modern world.

FROM AS young as age 9, they are enticed by the prospect of working restaurant jobs in mining camps in Brazil's Amazon region. Once there, they find themselves forced into prostitution, "servicing" as many as a dozen men each day--a nightmarish life that defies description. A cook in one such town said in testimony before Brazil's Congress that she regularly awoke "to find the corpse of a young girl floating in the water by the barge."

If this were an isolated incident, it would be horrifying enough. But it isn't isolated. Some 500,000 children have been forced into prostitution in Brazil alone, according to the estimate of U.S. lawyer Andrew Vachss.

Worldwide, the multibillion-dollar sex-trade industry involves an estimated 2 million children--including in Cambodia, Thailand and Costa Rica, where "sex tourism" is a big business.

The average age of woman entering into prostitution worldwide is 14. The profits to be made are immense when a 12- to 15-year-old children can be purchased for $800 to $2,000--and used for five to 10 years before they are cast away (often after contracting HIV, or easily cured, but untreated sexually transmitted diseases.)

This is one face of a terrible crime that continues in the world of the 21st century--trafficking in human beings. This modern-day slavery is actually more widespread numerically than at any other time in history. According to a conservative estimate by the Washington-based non-profit organization Free the Slaves, as many as 27 million men, women and children currently live in slavery around the world.

The forms are numerous: forced marriages (at least 200 "matchmaking" organizations operate in the U.S. to arrange prospective "brides" for male clients), forced labor and bonded labor.

According to Anti-Slavery International, a British-based human rights organization, the most common contemporary form of slavery is bonded labor, which accounts for some 20 million victims, according to United Nations statistics.

At first glance, these relationships almost appear to be legitimate. The victims accept "employment" as a means of repaying a loan. But the loan is never paid off, and the "employer" essentially takes ownership over the victim, subjecting them to unreasonably grueling hours, as well as physical (and sometimes sexual) abuse.

"The rise of globalization, the widening gap between developing and developed countries, the increase in poverty, unemployment, and the lack of equal opportunities" all contribute to modern slavery, Mohamed Mattar, co-director of the John Hopkins University Protection Project, said in a September 2004 presentation on human trafficking.

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VARIOUS CAMPAIGNS against human trafficking have centered on educating those most likely to encounter the victims--social workers, law enforcement officials and health care providers.

For example, a poster distributed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services--as part of its campaign to "Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking"--urges law enforcement officials to "Look Beneath the Surface." "The next prostitute, stripper, illegal immigrant, runaway youth, domestic servant or migrant worker you encounter may be a victim of human trafficking," reads the poster--while encouraging law enforcement to "shut down the real criminals."

But government efforts leave unacknowledged the larger role that slavery plays in the globalized economy.

In 2000, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. What has it accomplished? Estimates of the number of human trafficking victims in the U.S. runs as high as 50,000, according to Congress' 2000 investigation. But recent government statistics are significantly lower--around 14,500 to 17,500.

These numbers, combined with boastful Justice Department statements, imply that the 2000 act had a significant impact. But according to the Human Rights Center at the University of California-Berkley, the government doesn't count "the actual number of persons trafficked or caught in a situation of forced labor in a given year," according to its 2004 study "Forced Labor in the United States." "Instead, it counts only survivors...who have been assisted in accessing immigration benefits."

Obviously, this is only a portion of the people trafficked. And the situation is further compounded by the obvious obstacles in gaining access to government services--since human trafficking survivors are undocumented and must be willing to cooperate in federal investigations and prosecutions against their victimizers. They also run the risk of being victimized at the hands of the police, who usually regard them as criminals.

Overall, the system seems to generate some good PR for the Justice Department--but doesn't deliver help for victims. As the UC-Berkeley report puts it bluntly: "Forced labor exists in the United States because factors in the U.S. economy, legal system and immigration policy support it."

Meanwhile, the media often play down the full dimensions of the trafficking issue. When forced labor operations are exposed, "the media will depict it as a single shocking event," the report says. "But rarely do such exposés educate the public about its place and function within the U.S. economy."

The federal government's "Look Beneath the Surface" campaign really amounts to smoke and mirrors intended to keep people from doing just that. A real campaign against human trafficking would have to target not only the absurd immigration policies and racist legal system of the U.S., but the priorities of capitalism.

Sweatshop slaves in the USA

IN 1995, a small group of activists organized to bring public attention to a sweatshop operating in El Monte, Calif., just a short distance outside Los Angeles.

Behind tall chain-link fences topped with razor wire and protected by heavily armed guards, 72 forced labor workers, predominately Thai women, sewed garments in deplorable conditions. Two workers who had tried to escape the year before were severely beaten and sent back to Thailand. The garments the workers made ended up in such stores as Macy's.

"It's unfortunate that it takes something like slavery for people to pay attention," Alyssa King, of the Los Angeles Support Committee of the Garment Workers Justice Campaign told Socialist Worker in an interview at the time. "This stuff happens all the time all over the world."

The workers were freed from slavery after federal and local officials razed the factory, but public outrage achieved more. Nationwide attention achieved through demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns pressured the INS to release the immigrants from detention facilities and help them get access to housing, food and medical care.

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