Activists, U.S. government representatives and scholars gathered in Washington Thursday to discuss human trafficking, not sex-trafficking, which is the most talked-about aspect of the industry, but the more prevalent one: forced labor. The United States says hundreds of thousands of people around the world are victimized by human traffickers each year. It is more common in some nations than others, but panelists said not even the United States has conquered the problem. VOA's Marissa Melton reports.
A representative for the group Human Rights Watch opened the one-day conference with a narrated slide show explaining the plight of Asian women who migrate illegally from poor nations such as Indonesia, Burma, and Laos to wealthier nations like Thailand and Malaysia to find work.
Nisha Varia, whose job puts her in contact with these women, said many get trapped in their jobs because their employers threaten to deport them if they complain about the conditions, such as long hours, forced confinement, and even physical or sexual abuse. The soundtrack to the slide show features Varia's voice, describing some of the women she has tried to help.
"Some of them were very very nervous. There was one woman who kept going to the bathroom to vomit because she was so nervous. We were giving them phone numbers for hotlines, for the Indonesian embassy, for nonprofit groups that support migrant workers who are abused, and she was nervous even to take a small piece of paper that had a phone number on it," she said.
Varia said forced laborers need more protection. She said she wished she could use the United States as an example of a place where human trafficking doesn't exist. But despite increased efforts by the Bush administration to fight the problem, it still exists in north America -- partly because of the healthy job market in the United States.
Varia told her audience that the women tell her over and over that they just want to be treated like a human being, like everyone else.
Andrea Bertone, director of the U.S.-funded HumanTrafficking.org, also concentrates on human trafficking in Asia. She said migrant workers are often viewed as second-class citizens, as evidenced by a recent poll of employers in Thailand. "About half of them do not believe that migrants should have the same rights as Thai workers. They don't believe that they should have freedom of expression, they don't believe they should be able to form unions. This kind of research, I think, starts to open windows for us to understand why there is labor exploitation," she said.
John Fitzpatrick of the U.S. Department of Labor described some efforts federal agencies, including his own and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) agency, are making to cooperate on the issue. But he did not paint an entirely rosy picture.
"We're working with both ICE and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, we've held joint training sessions with their agents and our agents trying to figure out the industries that have a preponderance of these trafficking violations. We have a multi-pronged effort, it's been underway for a while, but we have a long ways to go," he said.
The activists on the panels suggested solutions such as better worker protection laws and job creation in poor countries where the workers migrate from. Seven years ago,the United Nations adopted a new treaty against organized crime that included a protocol aimed at human trafficking, particularly women and children.