Washington — The crime of human trafficking has achieved steadily increasing attention in international law enforcement and judicial circles since 2000. The United Nations adopted an international convention against trafficking in persons that year, and 117 nations are now signatories to that agreement.
That same year, the U.S. Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the nation’s strongest legal instrument to protect victims of modern slavery who are estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands in this country and more than 20 million worldwide. Now members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee are considering legislation to address this criminal activity in a new way that may help potential victims better protect themselves.
The Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination Act would impose requirements in foreign labor recruitment in order to create greater transparency for would-be recruits. Experts in the field say most victims of forced labor are ensnared by traffickers who peddle false promises to people in poor circumstances, offering them jobs and opportunities that they don’t know how to get on their own.
Organized criminal trafficking gangs — sometimes disguised as legitimate employment recruiters — take their victims far from home, family and community, withhold their passports and documents and force them into labor or prostitution.
“When I got to the U.S. things were very different than I thought,” said Angela Guzman, a former trafficking victim, in testimony to members of the Foreign Affairs panel November 4. “I was told I owed $12,000 for my transportation to the United States and the visa. I was told I would have to work for 10 years to pay this off.”
A native of the Philippines, Guzman served as virtual slave labor in a California home for elderly people, working 12 hours a day, never receiving time off or compensation. After two and a half years of this abuse, she was rescued by federal law enforcement when a neighbor recognized that Guzman and other workers were being ill-treated and reported it to authorities.
After her liberation, Guzman received help to become an independent, self-supporting citizen through an organization called CAST — the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking — in Los Angeles. Testifying at the congressional hearing held in California, CAST Executive Director Kay Buck said the proposed law is “an important bill that will help prevent human trafficking and protect workers coming to the U.S. from around the world.”
Buck and Guzman say that traffickers have found ways to exploit the U.S. visa processes to bring workers to this country under false pretenses. Working with other survivors, Guzman says she’s learned of victims who entered the country with a legitimate visa to work in agriculture, but “ended up enslaved on farms all around the United States with armed guards keeping watch.”
The top State Department official on trafficking in persons, Luis CdeBaca, acknowledged that fraudulent recruitment is a “big factor in the exploitation of workers” in the United States and internationally. Charging job-seekers a fee for assistance in seeking a legitimate position can ensnare people in a form of debt bondage, which CdeBaca considers another form of human trafficking.
“They owe so much money” to fee-charging recruiters, CdeBaca said, that “they’re almost already in debt bondage before they even show up for work.” No fee for recruitment is acceptable, under the latest regulatory regimen the Obama administration is developing to combat human trafficking.
In the vast global marketplace where the U.S. government acquires goods and services, the administration is developing a system to ensure that labor exploitation is not occurring anywhere in its supply chain. Companies attempting to do business with the U.S. government must be able to show that their products are not tainted by human trafficking in any stage of development or manufacture.
Building partnerships with governments and agencies at all levels is a key element of the State Department strategy to combat human trafficking, CdeBaca said. The complexity of the crime — involving labor, immigration, health, agriculture, transportation and other sectors — demands that officials and personnel in many capacities recognize trafficking for the crime that it is.
“No community is immune,” CdeBaca said. “It must be dealt with because modern slavery undermines the rule of law and justice.”
The U.S. State Department publishes an annual report on trafficking in persons that is one of the world’s most comprehensive data sets on this elusive, underground form of criminal activity. The 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, released in June, estimates that up to 27 million people worldwide may be victims of trafficking.
The 2013 report found that global convictions of human traffickers were up about 20 percent from the previous year, exceeding 4,700.