01/30/2011

Fighting Modern-Day Slavery

When Sabulal Vijayan left India for America, he hoped to build a better life for his family.

He had paid nearly $20,000 to labor recruiters for the opportunity to work at a Gulf Coast shipyard. The advertisement for the job offered green cards for workers and their families to become permanent U.S. residents. It was a chance to live the American dream.

Raising the money to pay the labor recruiters pushed him deep into debt, but he couldn’t let this opportunity pass. His Indian co-workers felt the same way. They also mortgaged their futures for a dream job.

When these men arrived to work for Signal International, LLC in 2006 and 2007, they discovered that they wouldn’t receive the green cards as promised, but rather 10-month guestworker visas. Signal forced them to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a trailer with only two toilets.

When the guestworkers tried to find their own housing, Signal officials told them they would still have the rent deducted from their paychecks. Workers who complained about these conditions were threatened with deportation.

Buried in debt, they had no choice but to work.

Unfortunately, their experience isn’t unique. Almost 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolished legal slavery in the United States, modern-day slavery – commonly known as human trafficking – is a thriving practice in this country. The SPLC has encountered human trafficking numerous times in our work protecting exploited immigrant workers.

With January serving as National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, it’s important to recognize the extent of this horrific practice. Research at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that at any given time in the United States, 10,000 or more people are enduring forced labor. But given the shadowy nature of human trafficking, the reality is there are probably tens of thousands of people who are currently victims.

And contrary to common belief, human trafficking isn’t exclusive to the sex trade. Victims can be found in a number of industries.

They’re the farmworkers toiling in the fields.

They’re the construction workers building homes and businesses.

They can even be a teacher in the classroom.

Tragically, human trafficking has become a tool of the trade for unscrupulous labor recruiters and employers. The scenario often follows the same pattern – a labor recruiter promises well-paying jobs, citizenship and other opportunities to a potential worker. The rewards are so great the worker borrows thousands of dollars to pay the labor recruiter’s fees for this amazing opportunity.

But when the worker arrives in the United States, the promises are broken. The pay is less than what was promised. Citizenship was never a possibility. But the mountain of debt and the threat of deportation are real.

And that’s enough to keep human trafficking victims silent and working.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is working to protect victims of human trafficking in a number of cases. We are representing the Indian guestworkers and others who thought they would suffer in silence. We are seeking justice for hundreds of Filipino teachers forced into exploitative contracts by an international trafficking ring run by labor contractors.

We also are raising awareness. This month I testified before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington where I described the problem of human trafficking and the laws the commission can use to combat it.  Fortunately, the last decade or so has seen this country enact the most significant laws regarding involuntary servitude since Reconstruction. The tools for change are there.

And along with our legal work, the SPLC is encouraging other attorneys to bring legal action on behalf of trafficked victims. We’ve even published a manual for attorneys that outlines legal strategies they can use in civil trafficking cases.

But there is still much work to be done. Human trafficking continues to be a scourge that preys upon men and women only seeking the chance for a better life. Thousands of people across this country are forced to labor under cruel and inhumane conditions every day. But with each legal victory we are exposing this practice to the light, raising awareness and ultimately helping these modern-day slaves find the path to freedom.

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