The United States has laws aimed at human traffickers who bring people into the country for forced labor. Non-government organizations are working with US states to strengthen laws on the state level, and activists met recently in Los Angeles to discuss the issue.
The federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 gave added tools to prosecutors who are fighting what they see as one of the cruelest forms of exploitation. Immigrants are brought into the United States, often illegally, to work in subhuman conditions.
Flor Esperanza, that is not her real name, but she wants to conceal her identity to protect her family in Mexico, was promised a better life by people who came to her village.
"They contacted me at my hometown and they promised me a great job, house and food. It was supposed to be that I had a great opportunity to come to the United States. Since I arrived here, everything changed," she said.
The 33-year-old woman found herself trapped in a Los Angeles garment factory. It was a so-called sweatshop, which violated a whole range of labor and human rights laws. There were bars on the windows and a lock on the door. She was not allowed to leave and slept at work. "I had no freedom, I had only 10 minutes to eat beans and rice, and I had to work 17 hours a day. And I couldn't speak with my coworkers, I couldn't go out, I couldn't take a shower. Everything was totally different than they had promised to me," she said.
She was afraid to go to the police. The traffickers said authorities would jail her if they learned she was in the United States illegally. But she managed to escape and went to San Diego, where police investigating the factory located her to serve as a witness.
Ms. Esperanza got help from a group called the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, and today she serves as a member of its advisory board. The group helped her get a temporary visa available to victims of severe trafficking, which allows her to stay in the country for three years. She was given public assistance and now attends school to learn English. She will be able to work and can later apply for a regular resident visa when the temporary permit expires.
Charles Song is staff attorney for the , and he says traffickers routinely threaten women in Flor's position. "They've essentially been threatened throughout their trafficking experience that if you report to law enforcement, I'm going to kill you or hurt you, or I'm going to kill you and hurt your family," he said. "I had a recent case where traffickers specifically targeted young single mothers with children back in their home country, and they said if you do anything, if you escape, if you talk to police, anything, I know where your children live, I know where they are. It's cheap for me to hire people in our home country. And you know that. So it was one of the most egregious cases that I'd ever seen."
Non-government organizations are working to enact anti-trafficking laws at the state level, to supplement the federal legislation. Arizona, Florida, Texas, and Missouri have passed anti-trafficking bills, and measures are being considered in California and other states.
Ann Jordan, director of the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons at Global Rights, a U.S. human rights group, says trafficking is a worldwide problem. It involves the movement of people involuntarily, often but not always for forced labor. She says in some places, women are forced into marriages. She says victims may be found working as domestics, or in the kitchens of restaurants. She says they work on farms and in the sex trade.
"We've had people forced to beg on the streets or sell small trinkets. We've had them doing any kind of work you can imagine. I mean, any place where somebody can make a profit off of the forced labor of somebody else, you're going to find the problem," she said.
Kay Buck of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking says her organization has opened the only shelter for victims of trafficking in the United States, which is located here in Los Angeles. That followed public outrage after authorities discovered 72 Thai garment workers locked in a makeshift factory 10 years ago.
"And two of the women risked their lives and escaped and found help. Law enforcement got involved. The community got involved. And the community really rallied, saying that we need an organization to address this issue because this is 72 victims all in one case, and we know that there are hundreds more in Los Angeles alone," she said.
Ms. Buck says that along with New York and Miami, Los Angeles is one of the major US destinations for human trafficking victims.