The recent coverage of Chinese "smuggling" in cargo containers fails to address the critical issue of these cases as examples of trafficking in human beings for slavery and slave-like practices, a growing problem in the United States. Angelenos may remember the 1995 case of the El Monte "slave shop," a classic trafficking case, in which 75 Thai garment workers were held in slavery, sewing clothes for some of the top U.S. manufacturers. The only difference between the recent Chinese trafficking and El Monte is that the Chinese workers never made it to their destination.
Trafficking in human beings is not particular to the Chinese community. It is a highly organized global phenomenon. Reps. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) and Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) have proposed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 1999 (H.R. 3244), a comprehensive anti-trafficking bill that would provide protection to trafficked persons, strategies for prevention of trafficking and more effective prosecution of traffickers.
Traffickers actively recruit workers, facilitate their migration and deliver them to a site where they will be held in bonded servitude for many years working for little or no pay, seven days a week. Workers often come from underdeveloped regions experiencing war, economic collapse, environmental degradation or ethnic conflict. Workers who are smuggled generally know what they're getting into and the arrangement upon arrival. Workers who are trafficked, on the other hand, are easily recruited, based on deceptions about the nature and conditions of the work situation. Upon arrival in the destination country, their identification papers are confiscated, and they live and work in subhuman conditions. Through violence or the threat of violence, employers control every aspect of the workers' lives.
Trafficking in human beings is highly profitable because of the length of time workers can be held in servitude paying off enormous debts. Trafficked persons work in garment factories, restaurants, agriculture and other informal labor sectors where they may be subjected to serious physical and psychological abuse by their employers.
These people are victims of human rights violations. Trafficking is a crime against the individual. Even though a person may have initially consented to go with a trafficker, at some point the purported terms and conditions of the initial work contract disappear. The workers then are coerced or forced into slavery or subjected to slave-like practices. The issue of consent is irrelevant because no one willingly consents to slavery.
Cracking down on the victims will only drive trafficking further underground and force traffickers to invent more dangerous and elusive ways of bringing workers into the United States. As opportunities for legal migration are shrinking globally, workers will continue to be lured by the false promises and deceptions of recruiters.
Oftentimes, trafficked persons are re-victimized by a justice system that offers few incentives for their cooperation in going after the perpetrators. Even when victims act as witnesses against their traffickers, they are held in Immigration and Naturalization Service detention without legal or social services throughout the course of the trial process, which could last one to two years. At the end of the proceedings, victim-witnesses are deported to their countries of origin, where they could face serious reprisals from their traffickers. Some governments, such as Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), have even imprisoned deportees.
Abuses will continue unless law enforcement recognizes trafficking as a human rights abuse and an issue of workers' rights. Programs that offer protections to exploited workers must be provided so they will be able to come forward and exercise a fundamental human right: freedom from exploitation. Trafficked persons must be provided with the opportunity to obtain legal status in the U.S., especially when they provide critical evidence in the prosecution of their traffickers. The proposed legislation would be a critical first step in combating this egregious crime against exploited workers.