In 1997, Maria was approached by an acquaintance who told her about restaurants in the United States in need of workers. Hoping to make enough money to support her daughter and parents, Maria accepted the offer and was brought from Mexico to Texas. When she arrived, however, she found that there was no restaurant job. The boss expected her to work as a prostitute to pay off her smuggling debt. When she resisted, she was beaten. If she or the other women with her refused a customer, they were raped. She was 18 years old, with no money and no way to get home.Maria (not her real name) is one of an estimated 700,000 to two million women and children worldwide each year who fall victim to international traffickers. Some are lured with the promise of paid employment in legitimate jobs; others are abducted or purchased from family members. A lucrative criminal enterprise, trafficking in persons is now thought to be the third largest source of profits for organized crime.
Each year approximately 45,000 to 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States, most to perform essentially unpaid labor in manufacturing or to be forced into prostitution. By some estimates, a third of these victims are under age 18. Victims most often come from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and increasingly from the New Independent States (the former Soviet bloc) and Central and Eastern Europe.
Their movements are restricted by traffickers who take their legal documents, and threaten physical violence against them or their family members. Told that police will arrest them for prostitution or immigration violations, they are afraid to seek help.
Trafficking for sexual exploitation. Female victims, particularly those trafficked for sexual exploitation, often are beaten and raped. Their risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, including HIV/AIDS is high. Women also may be subjected to forced abortions and other serious risks to their reproductive health.
Maria found herself constantly under guard. She and the other women were transported to different locations every few weeks, so they never knew where they were. The armed guards also threatened to injure their family members in Mexico if the women tried to escape.Increasingly, children are being forced into prostitution, in part due to the erroneous but widespread belief that younger children are unlikely to transmit HIV. Children are abducted – or bought – and trafficked to fuel the demand for child pornography and to supply the sex tourism industry which flourishes in many developing countries. These children are likely to suffer long-term damage to their emotional, psychological, and physical health. Compared to children who have not been sexually exploited, minors subjected to commercial sexual exploitation are more likely to engage in self-abusive behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse, and attempted suicide; they are also at greater risk of physical and sexual assault than children who are not sexually exploited.
Trafficking for sexual exploitation devastates the lives of victims, and this has consequences for society as a whole. Sexually exploited women and children face a life of poverty. They often develop mental illnesses and serious health problems, such as HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases. They may turn to other criminal activities to support themselves. International organized crime rings involved in trafficking prosper and spread as trafficking increases.
Maria is one of the lucky ones. After a year of forced prostitution in Texas, the INS raided the brothel where she was held captive. She agreed to help prosecute her captors. Several of them are now serving prison sentences in the United States. Maria related her story to the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee in November 2001, concluding her testimony with this plea:
I did not come to the United States to be a prostitute. I came to find a better future for my family. No woman or child would want to be a sex slave and endure the evil that I have gone through. ... Please help us and do not let this happen to anyone else.Trafficking in women and children for sexual exploitation would cease to be lucrative of course, and would therefore cease altogether, if there were no customers for the brothels. Certainly U.S. law enforcement agencies have limited resources and may not place a high priority on prosecuting prostitution, so often referred to as "a victimless crime." Authorities should be encouraged to regard the enslavement and forced prostitution of women and children as a heinous crime and to intensify their investigatory and enforcement efforts accordingly.
Trafficking for commercial manufacturing. Victims placed in commercial manufacturing facilities, particularly in the garment industry, endure working conditions that range from substandard to inhumane. Their pitifully low wages may be reduced to a pittance after grossly inflated charges for their international transport and "job placement fee,"cramped housing, meals, and incidentals are deducted. This practice is known as "debt bondage." Two examples of such trafficking will provide an idea of the scope of the problem.
A garment manufacturing mecca has sprung up on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. protectorate. Seventy percent of the island's garment manufacturing companies are foreign-owned, mostly by Chinese and Korean nationals. As a U.S. protectorate, manufacturers in Saipan face neither quota restrictions nor tariffs on goods exported to the United States, saving an estimated $200 million annually, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Garments from Saipan also carry "Made in the USA" labels which are seen by many U.S. consumers as an assurance of quality.
As of 1999, there were thirty-one garment factories operating on Saipan, employing about 15,000 alien workers, mostly women from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Thailand. A published report states that many of these workers "paid $2,000 to $7,000 to work at Saipan garment factories. Some sign restrictive contracts that forbid them to marry or fall in love. Most live in barracks on the island. Room and board expenses – typically $200 a month – are deducted from workers' paychecks" (Janet Moore and Jon Tevlin, "The Labor Behind the Label," (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, June 20, 1999).
Barracks and factories are surrounded by high fences, "some with razor wire" (Ibid.). Rooms, about the size of a college dorm room, house six women each. The work week consists of six 10- hour days of frantic-paced work. One woman described sewing two sleeves per minute, 1,230 a day. "There are no sick days ... No holidays. No vacations" (Ibid.). If they make their quotas, working 60 hours (including overtime), they take home about $130 a week, but all of the first year's wages may have to be used to repay up to $7,000 owed the job recruiter (trafficker).
"Federal agencies [have] documented hundreds of health, safety and labor violations and scams involving thousands of immigrant workers" in Saipan. (Ibid.) These include a month-long shortage of water available to employees of one large facility, the largest food poisoning incident ever investigated by OSHA, and fecal coliform bacteria in the drinking water of several factories.
Violations brought to light in the early 1990s and more recently, prompted Levi Strauss to twice stop doing business with Saipan companies. Tommy Hilfiger recently stopped placing orders with them, and Liz Claiborne's CEO "called for independent monitoring of factory conditions" (Ibid.). According to a 1999 press report, many U.S. companies, including the following, were then still buying garments made by trafficking victims in Saipan factories: Dayton Hudson (fourth largest U.S. retailer and parent of Target, Mervyn's, Dayton's, Hudson's and Marshall Field's), Gap, Sears Roebuck, Liz Claiborne, Ralph Lauren and Wal-Mart.
The debt bondage and dehumanizing working conditions in Saipan pale in comparison to those found in El Monte, California, where seventy-two garment workers trafficked from Thailand suffered enslavement for up to seventeen years. Julie Su, an attorney with the Asian Pacific Legal Center and a Board Member of Sweatshop Watch (SW) describes their plight on the SW website:
The workers labored over eighteen hours a day in a compound enclosed by barbed wire. Armed guards imposed discipline. Crowded eight to ten into bedrooms built for two, rats crawled over them during their few precious hours of sleep. ...After an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raid in August 1995, eight operators of the El Monte sweatshop were charged with involuntary servitude, kidnapping, conspiracy, smuggling, and harboring the Thai workers. They pled guilty to some of the charges. The INS also detained the trafficking victims on immigration violations! Fortunately, the local community posted bonds to free them from detention. "Churches, shelters, supermarkets, and hospitals stepped forward to help provide transitional housing, emergency food and clothing, and medical care. One worker, whose teeth had rotted from long neglect and who had extracted eight of his own teeth while confined in El Monte, received a brand new set from a generous dentist. ... All of the Thai workers were re-employed within two months, a testament to the efforts of community-based organizations working in coalition" (Ibid.).
Their captors, who supervised garment production and enforced manufacturer specifications and deadlines, ruled through fear and intimidation. Workers were forbidden to make unmonitored phone calls or write uncensored letters, and were forced to purchase goods from their captors, who charged four to five times the market price for food, toiletries, and other daily necessities. Living under constant threat of harm to themselves and to their families in Thailand, they labored over sewing machines in dark garages and poorly lit rooms, making clothes for brand name manufacturers sold in some of the biggest retail stores in America ... Mervyn's, Miller's Outpost, and Montgomery Ward. Others are sold on the racks of May department stores, Nordstrom, Sears, Target, and elsewhere. (Julie Su, "El Monte Thai Garment Workers: Slave Sweatshops," available at http://www.sweatshopwatch.org/swatch/campaigns/elmonte.html).
The Causes of Trafficking
It is clear from the above accounts that – however numerous and complex are the roots of trafficking in women and children – three causes stand out: poverty, greed and sex.
Poverty and limited job opportunities in some countries make offers of foreign employment attractive. The low status of women and girls in many parts of the world also plays a role. Desperately poor parents may sell female children to traffickers – knowingly or not – to help support the family and to avoid paying bridal dowries.
An increasingly globalized economy has led to greater demand for low-cost products, especially labor-intensive products such as garments. Traffickers profit by extracting exorbitant sums from the pay of those they deliver to manufacturing facilities. Manufacturers benefit from drastically reduced labor costs which enable them to reap substantial profits in sales to department stores and brand name clothiers while still undercutting legitimate competition. Department stores and clothiers see their sales and profit margins increase by acquiring goods more cheaply.
What does the Church say about this situation?
Trafficking in human persons violates central teachings of the Catholic Church: it shows contempt for the inherent dignity of the human person and exploits those who live in poverty. In The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council condemns certain grave offenses against human life in a passage reiterated "with the same forcefulness" by John Paul II in The Gospel of Life (n. 3):
Whatever is opposed to life itself...whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator (Gaudium et Spes, n. 27).Even earlier, Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor) condemns the mistreatment of workers, cautioning employers
not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. ... [To] misuse men as if they were things in the pursuit of gain ... that is truly shameful and inhuman. ... [To] exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one's profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven (n. 20).The Holy See continues to condemn trafficking in women and children and the sexual exploitation of children at various international conferences. It has called on governments to combat international poverty by providing more development aid, detecting and punishing exploiters of children, and strengthening the family, which is the primary protector of children. The Holy See also called for recognition of the dignity of all people and for placing a priority in development programs on the education and health of women and girls. These elements are key to promoting genuine human development, as well as ensuring that women and children are no longer treated as objects for economic gain.
What is being done?
In response to growing calls for government action, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). The TVPA establishes a maximum sentence of life in prison for those found guilty of certain types of trafficking in persons. The law also provides relief for victims of trafficking: they may be eligible for the same benefits as refugees, such as food stamps and medical assistance, and for services like crisis counseling and short-term housing assistance; and they may be able to remain in the U.S. under the newly created "T Visa." To be eligible, trafficking victims must be willing to assist in investigations or prosecutions of traffickers or be under age fifteen and subject to severe harm and extreme hardship if deported.
Currently, Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others are developing ways to provide services to victims of trafficking. The TVPA also calls for an annual report by the State Department on measures other nations are taking to combat trafficking. In addition, the law includes provisions that allow the United States to provide technical assistance to countries that are making a sincere effort to stop human trafficking. Any country that does not comply with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, or that is not making significant efforts to comply by 2003, may be denied non-humanitarian, non-trade related assistance from the United States.
The first report on international compliance was issued in July 2001. In twenty-three of the over eighty nations evaluated, current laws do not meet minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and significant measures are not being taken to comply with those standards. The report classifies international trafficking in humans as a growing problem which can only be solved by international cooperation among governments and non-governmental organizations.
All the above elements of the TVPA constitute a strong statement by the United States government that it will not tolerate these abuses of human rights. The implementation of the law,
however, has not been as speedy as one would hope, and only a few trafficking victims have benefited from its provisions to date. Catholics, informed on the issue of human trafficking and bearing Christ's message of respect for all human life, can help to ensure that this law provides effective protection to trafficking victims and helps to end such repugnant practices.
Margaret MacDonnell has a Master's Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and recently completed an internship in Migration and Refugee Services, U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Copyright © 2002, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. Illustration by Dolores Daly Flessner. 0252
For More Information
Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation Task Force
Toll-free complaint line: (888) 428-7581 with voice and TTY capability. www.usdoj.gov/crt/crim/tpwetf.htm
Call or visit the web site for information on victim services and to report a crime.
Office for Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice
810 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20531
(800) 627-6872 or (877) 712-9279 (TTY)
(Has a video entitled "Victims of Trafficking: Far From Home and Helpless.")
Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons,
U.S. Department of State
1800 G Street, NW, Suite 2148
Washington, DC 20223
United States Department of State
Has numerous documents on the U.S. government response to trafficking. www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/traf/
This site is where the annual country report on trafficking is located.
Child Exploitation and Obscenity
U.S. Department of Justice
1400 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530
Violence Against Women Office (VAWO),
U.S. Department of Justice
810 7th St., NW
Washington, DC 20531
VAWO can provide information on domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking issues.
Office of Refugee Resettlement,
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
370 L'Enfant Promenade, SW
ORR / 6th Floor East
Washington, DC 20447
End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking (ECPAT)
351 East 74th Street
New York, NY 10021
International Catholic Migration Commission
1319 F St., NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20004
Catholic Relief Services
209 West Fayette Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-3443
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