Bay Area organizations fight against human trafficking
February 6, 2020
Do you know who made your clothes?
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are currently 40.3 million victims of human trafficking around the globe; 24 million are used for their labor. Whether it be from within our own communities or in factories abroad, Americans are either directly or indirectly affected by human trafficking every day. Despite the widespread nature of this issue, many Americans remain unaware.
Contrary to popular belief, human trafficking extends far beyond forced prostitution. The practice — which has been described as a form of slavery — may also incorporate indentured labor at the hands of major corporations.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in their list of myths and misconceptions surrounding human trafficking, although the practice is largely hidden from the eyes of the public, it can be found in any nation, state, or community. The socks people put on in the morning, the clothes they wear to school, or the bag they sling over their shoulders could have been the work of an exploited laborer.
This is especially the case when it comes to fast fashion. Keeping up with the latest trends totals to a $30 billion industry that, according to The Guardian, runs largely on those who cannot afford the clothes themselves.
Both in the past and the present, corporations have taken advantage of relaxed workers’ rights laws in foreign countries to mass produce goods for sale in America. For example, the footwear brand Nike made headlines in the ‘90s and early 2000s after facing accusations that they were running child sweatshops in their locations in South Korea, mainland China, and Taiwan.
The Nike director of compliance, Todd McKean, stated in a 2001 interview that “the initial attitude was, ‘Hey, we don’t own the factories. We don’t control what goes on there.'”
After a number of protests, Nike made a move towards more sustainable production. However, the company still fails to provide these workers with living wages. Today, Apple faces similar criticism after a string of suicides occurred at an iPhone factory in China, spelling rumors of sweatshops.
Workers who labor in factories abroad and engage in protests of their rights are often subject to violence. From an assessment released by the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) on police violence used against garment factory workers in Bangladesh in December 2018, “garment workers seeking to form unions encounter bureaucratic hurdles from the government paired with intimidation, retaliation, and sometimes violent repression by employers.” As a result, labor unions exist scarcely within the nation's housing the factories that produce the apparel worn by the average American.
Little is done to defend them.
Know the Chain (KTC), an organization that investigates forced labor in corporations around the globe, published a report in 2018 studying the 43 largest apparel and footwear companies around the world and the treatment of their workers. They evaluated companies on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being those that provide the most ideal conditions. While Adidas, Lululemon, and Gap topped the list in first, second, and third places, respectively, none were able to reach 100. The average score was 42.
Amazon, one of the most well-known companies in the world, retrieved an annual revenue of $232.89 billion in 2018; however, they scored a mere 37 on the KTC scale. Testimonies from Amazon workers have revealed dire workplace conditions that contradicted their calls to “be treated like human beings.”
KTC also researched the two key demographics that consist of the apparel industry — women and migrants. Migrant women face a double disadvantage; as migrants, they are more likely to be exploited for their labor, while, as women, they are more likely to experience sexual harassment, abuse, and cultural barriers. Jordan is one example of a country where 77% of investigated workers were migrants.
“Most of the labor trafficking cases here in the U.S. are people from other countries, who are taken advantage of since they’re in poor situations,” said Brian Wo, co-founder of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition (BAATC). “A lot of times people who come here are desperate, and are charged a recruitment fee to come to the U.S. to work, which is illegal.”
According to the Solidarity Center, there are 164 million migrant workers worldwide. Labor brokers hire workers from outside of the country and contract them to temporary jobs within. They arrange the migrants with work visas that allow them to enter the U.S. for the time in which they are employed and charge them with illegal fees that they struggle to pay. They are then cast into debt under the pressure of the brokers and must continue working at what was intended to be a temporary job.
International news organization Reuters completed an individual case study on Nestor Molina, one of the brokers hired by companies to task Honduran migrants with picking strawberries in Florida. While they were forced into dilapidated housing and threatened if they decided to speak out, Molina amassed an alleged $2 million exploiting their labor. However, this is far from rare.
In a Ted Talk, journalist Noy Thrupkaew discussed human trafficking and how the erasure of forced labor exploitation affects migrants and people of color. She has led several investigations into human trafficking in the past, from Cambodia to Morocco to Iran.
“If [workers] try to resist their treatment, they risk deportation,” Thrupkaew said. “Employers have no problem calling on law enforcement to try to threaten or deport their striking trafficked workers.”
In the case of sex work, it is especially challenging for victims of human trafficking to seek help. Human Rights Watch wrote that the criminalization of sex work is likely to do more harm than good when it comes to human trafficking. Sex workers are in a position where they live in unsafe locations and are unable to report crimes that had been committed against them. They are even subject to abuse at the hands of the police themselves.
“In study after study, in countries ranging from Bangladesh to the U.S., between 20-60% of the people in the sex trade who were surveyed said they’d been raped or assaulted by the police in the last year alone,” Thrupkaew said. “People in prostitution, even those who had been trafficked into it, received multiple convictions for prostitution. Having that criminal record makes it so much more difficult to leave poverty, leave abuse, or leave prostitution.”
For those who are trapped in human trafficking and do not wish to contact the police, they still have resources through the National Human-Trafficking Hotline.
“A lot of victims have had negative contact with the criminal justice system. In the Bay Area, when police agencies do human trafficking operations, they take a service provider with them so victims can talk to someone,” Wo said.
Yet many cases of human trafficking, both in America and overseas, stay hidden.
“Law enforcement is supposed to identify victims and prosecute traffickers. But out of an estimated 21 million victims of human trafficking in the world, they have helped and identified fewer than 50,000 people,” Thrupkaew said.
The BAATC is one organization that works towards ending human trafficking in the Bay Area through community-based mobilization. Founded in 2011, the BAATC facilitates collaboration between different groups interested in joining the fight against human trafficking.
“We do a lot of awareness-raising through speaking and training. More recently, we’ve focused on training people who are more likely to see human trafficking daily,” Wo said. “Airport employees may see victims in transit, or people working in an apartment complex may see trafficking happen when traffickers are renting out units at apartment complexes.”
The BAATC also hosts events such as the Freedom Summit, which conferences various organizations and groups interested in human trafficking under one roof. Smaller, regional events, like those held in Redwood City, the San Mateo County Fair, and the Santa Clara County Fair, were more community-based, pairing together different schools, organizations, and government officials as they brought awareness of the issue to the general public.
Wo was also able to provide suggestions on how to identify human trafficking in one’s community.
In regards to the 9,000 illicit massage parlors that are estimated to exist across the country, the noticeable presence of locked doors, darkened windows, or men waiting at these parlors late at night may signal that human trafficking is taking place. If, upon asking these workers questions, they can only answer in the presence of an employer, there may be further grounds for suspicion. He states that these rules also apply to one's neighbors.
“There was a case of someone who noticed that they had neighbors who, in the morning, would come out the garage door and climb into a van, and at night, the van would come back and drop them off. Men were staying in the house, in the garage, and the traffickers were taking them to work during the day and bringing them back home,” Wo said.
He recommended that anyone who notices such activity call the National Anti-Trafficking Hotline and talk through different indicators if one is looking to understand if a case requires investigation.
“Students nowadays learn a lot about online safety, but I think you can’t over-emphasize that traffickers will groom other people online,” Wo said. “If there’s a classmate who starts wearing much nicer clothes and carrying watches and jewelry, that can be a sign a trafficker is grooming them. Some traffickers also tattoo their victims with their names or some type of branding. If you see unusual tattoos on classmates and have other suspicions, that could be a red flag they’re a sex trafficking victim."
Most importantly, Wo believes that one must have empathy and understanding for victims of human trafficking as they make their way onto the road of recovery. Victims often develop an attachment with their traffickers that can be difficult to break, even after leaving the situation. This is known as trauma bonding. Other times, victims are unaware that they are being trafficked at all.
“Romeo pimps look for young girls that believe he’s in love with them while he uses them for his own gain,” said Annika Nambiar, a former student at Carlmont High School. “The girl genuinely believes that he loves them, even though he is asking them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. They’re dependent on infatuation.”
In her senior year, Nambiar focused her Girl Scout Gold Award on raising awareness about human trafficking to the Carlmont community.
“Over the summer I was signing up for events that I’d seen in the newspaper and from emails that had been going around. It led me to a panel discussion that was about human trafficking in the Bay Area,” Nambiar said. “Usually when you hear about human trafficking, you’re thinking of third world countries. To know that human trafficking was occurring in the Bay Area was a bit of a shock to me. Nobody mentions it in school, and it’s not covered in media often enough. I got to hear speakers at the panel talk about their experiences and how neighborhoods were ridden with human trafficking, whether it be San Francisco or San Mateo.”
Girls between the age of 12 and 21 are most vulnerable to trafficking, according to London Abused Women’s Center.
“I was frustrated that no one had told us about this present danger. People at Carlmont may be vulnerable to this, but not enough know about it,” Nambiar said. “For me, it all came about because of the first event I volunteered at, called ‘Before Our Very Eyes.’ Different organizations are very willing to have high school students represent them. You go through a training, and they inform you on human trafficking and give you pamphlets. It’s very survivor oriented.”
She emphasized researching into apparel companies to see if they are associated with human trafficking. For instance, the CEO of L Brands, which manages Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, is linked to sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Esther Chyan, an advocate volunteer and advisory council member for the organization Freedom House, spoke out on the subject.
“Human trafficking is something that happens right here in the U.S.; when I help table for Freedom House, we hear that‘it can’t be happening in California’ or ‘it can’t be happening in the U.S.’ which is honestly one of the biggest misconceptions,” Chyan said.
Freedom House is a non-governmental organization that was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie in 1941. The Bay Area branch, San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking (SFCAHT), allows adult women who have been rescued to stay up to 18 months in low-cost, transitional housing while providing them with vocational training, food, and other services.
“Freedom House has an annual gala that gives people a way to learn about human trafficking and what is happening on the frontier to stop it from spreading,” Chyan said. “We’re also at a point where raising awareness is a huge part of what needs to happen. The gala is a way for people to know what human trafficking is.”
Their 11th annual gala will take place on May 2, 2020.
Chyan also gave advice on how to combat human trafficking at the local level.
“Know the different types of human trafficking and how to identify someone in bondage,” she said. “Have the anti-human trafficking number stored in your phone so you can call in case you discover someone who is trapped in this situation. Get involved in local organizations helping with the movement and volunteer.”
Freedom House releases a report every year called "Freedom in the World," which details the status of human trafficking by country.
Human trafficking persists as a global issue.