Written by Alexis Romo
When we hear about human trafficking, we usually think about the buying and selling of people for sex. It’s no surprise that we mostly talk about the sexual exploitation aspect of trafficking – but today I want to talk about the less-mentioned forms of trafficking.
Last month, I interviewed Marjorie Saylor – a human trafficking survivor and founder of San Diego’s “The Well Path.” She talked about how sexual exploitation was actually a small part of her trafficking experience, and that the majority of her time being trafficked was in the labor area. I have to be honest, I was genuinely surprised to hear that. I know that human trafficking also entails forced labor, but I had never actually heard of anyone’s experience being more labor-driven. I admit, part of not knowing is due to my own ignorance and not doing research, but after talking to Saylor I wondered why labor trafficking wasn’t talked about as much as sex trafficking.
According to HumanTraffickingHotline.org, “Labor trafficking is a form of human trafficking where victims are made to perform a task through force, fraud or coercion as it occurs in the United States.” A huge area where trafficking is prevalent is in the agricultural industry. A lot of people who work in agriculture come to the United States on a H-2A visa, which is a visa that allows foreign workers into the U.S. for temporary agricultural work. I was reading a story on HumanTraffickingHotline.org that talked about a man named Daniel who came to the U.S. on an H-2A, and was quickly concerned that he might be in a trafficking situation. His employer confiscated his passport, did not provide adequate pay, and required Daniel to work extremely long days. He was scared to leave because if you leave your employer on an H-2A, your visa is canceled and you get deported. If this happens, you may not be allowed to work in the U.S. again.
But that’s not the only business that’s known for forced labor. Many massage parlors are fronts for sex trafficking rings. These are called Illicit Massage Businesses, or IBMs. According to an article on PolarisProject.org, there are over 9,000 IBMs open for business in the U.S., and they produce around $2.5 billion annually. The problem with these massage parlors is that the mainstream media has conditioned us to believe that sexual encounters during massages are something normal and okay. We’ve fostered some type of cultural acceptance that the “happy endings” are actually happy endings. Using the phrase “happy ending” actually insinuates that while commercial sex is illegal, it’s okay in this situation. To the women working in this industry, the term “happy ending” is ironic. Most of these workers, like Daniel, are immigrants who are seeking financial stability, but are often too scared to speak out about these abuses for fear of losing their jobs.
In countries like India and Pakistan, bonded labor is a huge marker of human trafficking that often – if not exclusively – involves children. The entire premise of bonded labor is to pay off debt. However, if your parents have debt and they die before they can pay it all off, it’s passed onto the children. If the children don’t have the financial means to pay off their parents’ debt, they’re put to work. If the child cannot pay off the debt, it’s passed onto their children and so on. This results in a seemingly never ending cycle of forced labor. The debt can be passed down generations, and children can be held in debt bondage for things their parents & grandparents could not pay for.
Now, this article isn’t meant to downplay the seriousness of sexual exploitation. I want to shine light on labor trafficking because I genuinely had no idea that it’s as prevalent as it is, and I want to bring awareness to all types of trafficking. I didn’t know that the strawberries I buy could have been picked by a victim of human trafficking, and I didn’t know that the massage parlor down the street from where I live can have active cases of exploitation and forced labor. All in all, we should strive to bring awareness to all types of trafficking so that we can identify the signs and help victims come out of their abusive situations.