A truck parks in a Wal-Mart parking lot in San Antonio in July’s blistering heat.
A man desperate for water makes it inside the store asking for a drink. It’s discovered that the truck is full of people. Eight are already dead, two more die later, and others were critical with probable permanent damage. Vehicles transport dozens to other locations to continue their journey.
This year, the University of Texas released the results of an in-depth study regarding trafficking in Texas.
There are an estimated 313,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas alone. The majority, 234,000 of them, are being trafficked for labor, not for sex.
The conundrum? The situation in San Antonio is technically smuggling, not trafficking.
While the link to trafficking is inextricable and the crimes committed horrific, legal action more often than not must use other avenues of prosecution rather than trafficking.
This means fewer services and help for the victims specifically in terms of visas and deportations.
Deported victims are often found by their traffickers and forced to cross again because they “owe” the “coyote” for their previous transport. It is a vicious and often deadly cycle of violence and exploitation.
When discussing labor trafficking, we are not talking about just manual labor jobs, such as migrant workers or day laborers.
Labor trafficking has occurred with teachers in school systems. A debt bondage situation with Filipino teachers in Boston was discovered and similar situations with teachers from India in other states.
Labor trafficking cases have been prosecuted on behalf of victims discovered in the hospitality industry, restaurants and food service, nail salons, spas, domestic work, construction industry, manufacturing, traveling sales crews and so on.
Here is the caveat where labor trafficking is concerned: In the U.S., 83 percent of identified sex trafficking victims were U.S. citizens. This is domestic trafficking not to be confused with forced domestic labor, which is forced house help.
The point is that most sex trafficking victims in the U.S. are not foreign nationals. However, 67 percent of labor trafficking victims were classified as undocumented and 28 percent as documented immigrants.
What about the situation globally? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 136 goods are made from child and forced labor – cotton, cocoa, coffee, clothing, shoes, fish and so on.
While the majority of sex trafficking victims are women and girls, labor trafficking is no respecter of gender or age. Men, boys, women and girls are potential victims when they are vulnerable.
Again, the global statistics follow the same pattern as domestic. The International Labor Organization estimates that for every one sex trafficking victim, there are nine victims of labor trafficking.
If we are to address labor trafficking rather than simply search out and rescue victims (though that is certainly necessary), we must address the prevailing global vulnerabilities of poverty, race, immigration, education and gender.
These issues permit those who are dominant in power and influence to suppress and enslave.
Transportation, technology and communication make all of us global citizens. We cannot disregard the injustices that marginalize and victimize approximately 14 million people.
In addressing sex trafficking, one model that has proven successful has been called “reduce the demand.”
At its simplest, this model makes those who would purchase sex the offender rather than the one selling sex. Conviction comes with significant repercussions that keep the buyer from engaging further in the purchasing of sex. With fewer buyers, there would be fewer trying to sell.
The same model could be applied to labor trafficking. If you reduce the demand, there would be fewer who would sell.
Some ways we might begin to reduce the demand:
1. Legislation that would hold American manufacturers to a certain standard in overseas production.
Before goods are brought into the U.S. for distribution, companies should prove that these goods are not made from forced or exploited labor. Fair trade certified should not be an option.
2. Immigration protocols that provide an interview process by which those who are smuggled are able to identify as victims and gain access to victim services.
3. Municipal governments requiring all local services to go through basic training regarding human trafficking and posting the human trafficking hotline before licensing is granted.
4. Educating industries regarding recruiters and debt bondage and more federal regulation on the use of foreign recruiters for work in the U.S.
5. Educating the general public on fair trade and how to purchase with a purpose, thereby pressuring industries to provide fair trade products.
Recognizing and addressing labor trafficking with the same vigilance as sex trafficking, addressing the vulnerabilities of trafficking globally, and reducing the demand will, in my opinion, go a long way in eradicating slavery for the purposes of labor.
And make no mistake: Labor trafficking is just as bad as sex trafficking. Exploitation is not measured in levels of wrongness.
Nell Green serves as a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel alongside her husband, Butch, in Houston. They address issues related to human trafficking and minister to the needs of refugees.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series for Labor Day 2017. Part 1, “What is Your Church Doing for Labor Day Services?” is available here.