Where do they come from?

The stark reality is that the supply is never-ending … I mean, that little girl who started as a runaway on the streets in Washington State and ended up on the streets of Miami Beach as a prostitute is way too typical … There is an endless supply — and it is almost surreal to have these words leave my mouth — endless supply of victims. But that’s the stark reality.
~ Andrew Oosterbaan,  Chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, U.S. Department of Justice

Victims of human trafficking are of all nationalities, races, classes, and genders. But it is not surprising that poverty is a leading cause for people to be at risk. Women and children are especially vulnerable and are overwhelmingly the targets. Poverty is closely tied to limited educational opportunity, lack of access to health care, and few employment options. This suggests that social policies which raise the standard of living will have an impact on shrinking the pool of potential victims. This may be achieved internationally by making strict fair labor practices a condition for trade agreements. Here in the United States we would do well to extend to agricultural and domestic workers, the many labor laws and legal protections from which they are now largely excluded.

Perpetrators range from individual pimps or small families, to decentralized criminal networks and international organized criminal syndicates. It is worth noting that though this crime is certainly one of the most vile, the people who perpetrate it need not be sadistic monsters. Evil may often be found in a suit and tie, smiling pleasantly, and coldly making business decisions in which the toll of human suffering is simply not part of the equation. Large sex trafficking operations involve scores or even hundreds of people. There are scouts, procurers, enforcers, drivers, money launderers, real estate managers, doctors, lawyers, people to pay bribes and corrupt officials who accept them, document forgers, house managers… etc. Sadly many women also play a large role as traffickers, frequently having been victims themselves.

Even when useful laws are put in place, such as the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, we often do not see a corresponding commitment to funding for investigations, prosecutions, and training of law enforcement personnel. Even the most well intentioned legislation and the harshest penalties, will have little impact without effective enforcement. Citizens must be aroused to demand responsive political leadership.

Products of slave labor, as we have seen, include many commodities that we all use without ever suspecting any taint. Modern globalization of trade has made the marketplace increasingly competitive. Some businesses, indeed segments of entire industries, have responded by reducing costs to levels that cannot sustain the fair price of labor. They have resorted to using slaves. In some cases this abuse may involve people toiling for long hours in harsh conditions for well below the legal minimum wage. This is true even in countries where the minimum wage is woefully inadequate. In other cases people have been kidnapped and labor under the whip. In most cases, workers are never actually paid at all, but only see inflated ‘debts’ accrue. Many times governments turn a blind eye, or in instances of pervasive corruption may actually be complicit. The tainted fruit of these obscene practices is often obscured by the use of middlemen so that manufacturers can deny responsibility. ‘Plausible deniability’ has become a watchword for manufacturers as much as for politicians.

Coffee, chocolate, cotton, and sugar are just a few examples of problematic agricultural products. Seafood is often harvested and processed overseas under conditions that are unimaginably cruel. Mining of ores and minerals in less developed countries is rife with labor abuse. The mica in your lip gloss, the gold in your jewelry, the steel in your car, may all derive from questionable sources. Labor intensive manufactured goods such as clothing, rugs, and basketwork are often the product of forced or child labor.

What can we do? The informed consumer may be our strongest weapon. Look at labels. Learn more about these kinds of products. Support the Fair Trade movement. An enlightened public can create new markets that reward social responsibility. We can demand that processors and manufacturers take responsibility for ethical sourcing in their supply chain. We can ban certain imports from countries that tolerate, or even promote, the use of slave labor. Here at home, a sane and humane immigration policy would reduce our reliance on undocumented workers who are especially vulnerable to being trafficked. Extending the protection of laws like the Fair Labor Practices Act to agricultural and and domestic workers, would have a huge impact on curbing the rampant abuse in those areas. If there is sufficient public outcry, these are obtainable goals.

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