Modern-day abolitionists battle global slave trade, human trafficking
October 28th, 2009
By Michael Vick
Slavery. For most Americans, the word evokes thoughts of an ancient institution abolished in this country in the 19th century. But while slaves are no longer found in the cotton and tobacco fields of the South, more insidious forms of modern-day slavery continue unabated globally, even in the land of the free.
An estimated 27 million people now are enslaved worldwide, half of them children under the age of 18. Roughly 80 percent are women. Tens of thousands labor daily in the United States with little or no pay under threat of violence, a threat all too often made real. Human trafficking generates $31 billion annually, making it the third-most lucrative criminal activity behind narcotics and weapons trade.
And while they fight an uphill battle, a growing cadre of modern-day abolitionists fights to end slavery for good. Among them is the Not for Sale Campaign – an organization founded by University of San Francisco professor David Batstone.
“This is a crisis that I didn’t go looking for,” Batstone said. “It found me.”
The professor and his family regularly dined at the Pasand Madras Indian restaurant in Berkeley for years until reading a series of reports in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000 exposing the owner as a labor and sex trafficker.
“I’d been working in social justice and human rights ever since I was in college,” Batstone said. “But this idea of slavery, I thought that was in the history books. What do you do when you find slavery in your own backyard?”
Batstone’s answer was to research the issue as thoroughly as possible, eventually enlisting the help of his students. From those humble beginnings, Not for Sale grew into an international organization with regional centers around the country and operations in South America, Asia and Africa.
In his global quest for answers, Batstone encountered a wide variety of circumstances that lead to slavery. Impoverished families sell their children to be house servants, often with the promise of an education, a ruse many traffickers use to obtain child sex slaves. A guerrilla army attacks an African village and kidnaps children to serve as soldiers. A man or woman is offered advance salary payment for a job, only to find upon accepting the job that the pay is low, the interest on the loan high, and escape impossible.
In the United States, victims are trafficked from at least 35 different countries, though most originate from China, Mexico and Vietnam. States with large port cities or along international borders – California, Florida, Texas and New York – have the highest incidence of modern-day slavery.
Slavery can also go largely unnoticed by law enforcement and the public because slaves typically occupy positions in the black market sex industry or in industries where cheap labor and poor working conditions are the norm – agriculture, domestic service, factory work, and restaurant and hotel work.
While acknowledging the abolitionist’s task is gargantuan, Batstone does not believe it to be impossible.
“I don’t ask people to become Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglas or William Wilberforce,” Batstone said. “I ask them to be themselves.”
To that end, Batstone encourages consumers to become educated about their purchases. For example, he notes that tens of thousands of children labor in slave-like conditions in West Africa to produce chocolate, much of which is consumed in industrialized countries like the United States. By purchasing fair trade chocolate and other fair trade products, consumers ensure their money does not go to fund slavery.
Batstone’s group also researches massage parlors in San Francisco, many of which the group has found are fronts for prostitution and human trafficking. Often brought to the United States with the promise of a job as a model, hostess or restaurant worker, once in country young women and girls are instead forced to work in the sex industry. Far from home, often without passports and fearful of arrest or the threat of violence against themselves and their families, they are repeatedly sexually exploited.
A pair of measures enacted by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in June and sponsored by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor Carmen Chu, respectively, aims to crack down on the parlors. Chu’s measure makes it more difficult to obtain a license to open a massage parlor and makes it easier to revoke the license, while Newsom’s measure increases fines for those who violate their permits and requires the parlors to close by 10 p.m.
Catholic San Francisco accompanied Not for Sale researchers Killian Moote and Christiana Hebets on a drive-by tour of San Francisco massage parlors the group monitors for illegal activity. Moote said the group has conducted both 12- and 24-hour surveillance on multiple locations in the city, and found that many are open at all hours of the day and night.
One additional tool in the abolitionist’s arsenal thanks to the Newsom-Chu measures is a regulation requiring massage parlors to have a window facing the street through which the public can view the business.
“Does that solve this problem? No,” Moote said. “But it creates a transparent window into an industry that’s non-transparent.”
Hebets said the group is careful to do background research on the establishments before conducting surveillance, and once it has sufficient evidence to warrant what Moote and Hebets called “high-probability of trafficking,” they turn the evidence over to law enforcement. The group also distributes posters in the neighborhood with resources for victims, always mindful not to get too specific regarding their targets of investigation.
“If the traffickers knew or had a suspicion that people were watching them, it would only push their business further underground and put victims in further danger,” Hebets said.
Melissa Farley, a psychologist and researcher who studies prostitution and keynote speaker at an Oct. 24 forum on human trafficking at St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Berkeley, said women and girls like those Not for Sale tries to help are caught up in a system of sexual exploitation frequently dismissed by a permissive culture as a “victimless crime.”
Farley said the shift in focus from treating prostitutes as criminals to treating them as victims of a crime has been the most positive development in stemming the tide of sex trafficking worldwide.
“Sex trafficking is demand driven,” Farley said. “Women and girls are the supply. For a long time, all we’ve been looking at is the supply. We’re beginning to look at the buyer, because without him, the whole industry would collapse.”
While researchers like Moote, Hebets and Farley gather evidence, policymakers and activists alike continue to push for action to combat slavery. Not for Sale held its first “Global Forum on Human Trafficking” in Carlsbad, Calif. Oct. 8-9, with speakers including Luis de Baca, United States ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons.
In the U.S. State Department’s ninth annual “Trafficking in Persons” report, released in 2009, De Baca wrote that the peril trafficked victims face is a “debasement of our common humanity.”
“Globally, there are countless persons who labor in bondage and suffer in silence, feeling that they are trapped and alone,” De Baca wrote. “It is on their behalf, and in the spirit of a common humanity, that we seek a global partnership for the abolition of modern slavery.”
For more information, visit www.notforsalecampaign.org.
From October 30, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.