RHR2010: Whose Rights? Where does Judaism require us to focus our efforts: Global justice, Community Organizing or Israel?
RHR2010: Breakfast Briefing: Park51 + The Crisis of Islamophobia

Slavery, Trafficking and People of Faith: In Our Own Backyards and Beyond

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Plenary: Slavery, Trafficking and People of Faith: In Our Own Backyards and Beyond

This session features Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services; Ron Soodalter, Author, The Slave Next Door; Pamela Shifman, NoVo Foundation; and Nisha Varia, Human Rights Watch.

"If trafficking is about anything, it's about power," says Rabbi Simkha Weintraub. Trafficking is about people who lack power, being exploited by people who have power. "We sitting in this room are not powerless." (The panel begins with Ron Soodalter, which makes sense -- the panel needs to begin with an explanation of contemporary slavery before we can talk about why women are disproportionately exploited or about the uniquely awful situation many female domestic workers find themselves in -- but please, read all the way to the end of this post, because the conversation just gets more powerful.)

At the beginning of this plenary session, a handout is passed around the room which is titled "What You Can Do to End Slavery." It's from humantrafficking.change.org, and lists items under the headings of "increase awareness," "support abolition with your wallet," and "spread the conversation through social media." This handout was passed around on behalf of Ron Soodalter, who says that every time he speaks on this issue, he gets the question "what can I do?"

"Last year a man was arrested for both sex and labor trafficking. He allegedly kept two yong women prisoner in his home on threat of violence, forcing them to work without compensation and to perform sexual acts. He advertised for them on a legitimate site for au pairs, though he had no children. The police had had him on his radar for years. The man to whom I refer is not a pimp or trafficker from a dicey neighborhood; he is a 65-year-old writer from the Westchester neighborhood of Pound Ridge. His neighbors were stunned to discover that slavery exists...even in their own back yard."

"Certain things we know to be true: that the South kept slaves, an the North fought a righteous war of emancipation...that the United States has been slavery-free ever since. These are things we know, and they are not true. Meanwhile, most Americans do not know that...slavery is legal nowhere, and yet it is practiced everywhere," Soodalter says. There are roughly 27 million people in bondage worldwide -- that's twice the number who were taken in chains during the 350 years of the slave trade. "It's one of the most profitable businesses of our time," he says.

You may imagine that slavery happens in emerging nations -- but it also happens in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, China, Israel, and the United States, he says. "Most Americans do not know that slavery is alive and more than well, right here, thriving in the dark... the simple truth is, humans keep slaves. We always have."

Beginning with Christopher Columbus, right up to the present moment, there has not been a day on this continent without slavery from its European discovery right up to the present moment. Slavery in America hit its lowest ebb in the 1960s; but beginning in the 70s, and exploding in the 1980s and 90s, slavery came back with a venegeance.

America, Soodalter says, is a prime destination for slavers. "Most Americans' prime concept of slavery comes straight out of Gone With The Wind," he says, and that was one form of slavery; the bondage which plagues America today is different but no less real. Today slavery is illegal; today slaves are kept hidden, making it all the harder to rescue the victims and to punish the offenders. Where slaves in America were once African or African-American, "today we have what we might refer to as equal-opportunity slavery," Soodalter says. "This, people, is capitalism at its absolute worst."

In the 1850s, you would pay around $1200 for a human being, which in today's currency is around $40,000, Soodalter tells us. "You would no more destroy property of such worth than you would cripple a good plough horse." But today, a slave costs only a few hundred dollars. "All forms of slavery are horrific, but today's version is one of the more diabolical versions to come along in the last few hundred years," he says, and it goes along with torture, rape, homicide, document forgery, and a host of other crimes.

The US State department says that somewhere between 17,000 and 30,000 people are trafficked into this country and enslaved here each year. "The slave ship of the 1800s has been replaced by the jumbo jet," says Soodalter. The victims come here in hopes of prospering in America. "In order to afford the journey, they fork over their life's savings and go into massive debt to people who have no intention of keeping their bargain," and when they arrive here, they find not opportunity but oppression. They work in sweatshops and factories; they are victims of sexual exploitation; "they were bought and sold specifically to work, they cannot leave, and they live under constant threat of violence." Today we call it human trafficking, he says, but "make no mistake: we're talking about the slave trade."

"Nor are native-born Americans immune from slavers," Soodalter tells us; thousands of Americans who were born here are caught in slavery annually, many of them children. There are about 17,000 murders committed in the US each year, and around 70% of those homicides are solved each year. Roughly the same number of people are enslaved here each year (at the bottom of the estimate), and less than 1% of those cases are solved. When the government talks about human trafficking at all, it talks about sexual exploitation, whose victims are subjected to serial rape. "But there are many other forms of slavery thriving right under our noses. If you don't see them, you're in good company: neither do most of our police or public officials."

There's a chance, Soodalter says, that the clothes you wear and the food you eat have been tainted by slavery. Cotton is now being picked by slave labor on three continents; cell phones and laptops require tantalum, which is made from an ore mined in the Congo, frequently by slaves. (I knew that cell phones required tantalum, which is mined in the Congo, and I knew that tantalum mining helped to fund the deadly civil war in the DRC, but hadn't heard that it was mined by slaves.)

"According to federal law, any minor engaged in prostitution is automatically considered a victim of human trafficking," says Soodalter. He bemoans the reality that state laws tend to focus on punishing the bad guys, not on helping the victims. "Without an educated public, there can be no hope of eliminating slavery. The amount of information is staggering, and yet we remain oblivious."

"Here's a suggestion for you. When you get home, go to your computers and go on Google," Soodalter suggests. "They have a section called News Alerts; please find it. Where it says, 'what would you like to be alerted on,' type in 'human trafficking.'"

"America was born with a congenital disease of slavery, and illegal or illegal, it has never left us," Soodalter says. "We know that human trafficking exists here today; we know taht there is a past due need to train and sensitize both civilians and law enforcement to find it and to approach it with skill and sensitivity, and we should know that without pressure from us, it will not get done." If history has taught us anything, he argues, it is that forward movement, much less salvation and guidance, only happens through the pressure we place on our leaders and institutions. Today we study our ugly slave past, but we don't pay attention to "how slavery has evolved in America into a whole new beast that lives in darkness among us and feeds on ignorance and misery."

The next speaker is Pamela Shifman, who begins by telling us about the NoVo foundation which seeks to transform a culture of domination and exploitation to a culture of partnership and empowerment of women and girls.

"Sex trafficking is both a demand and a supply-driven industry," she argues. The supply of sex trafficking victims looks similar wherever you are in the world. The victims are desperately poor, often the poorest of the poor. They are ethnic and racial minorities. (In the US, women and children of color are disproportionately represented in the sex industry. In India, it is women of low caste.) They are very young -- in the US, the average age to enter prostition is between 11 and 14, and in most countries it is younger. "Walk into the brothels of Mumbai or Calcutta and you will see 8 or 9-year-old girls who have been prostituted for years," she tells us, and a gasp moves around the room.

One study found that women in prostitution were 40 times likelier to be murdered than women in any other line of work. "Many are escaping abusive home situations," Shifman tells us. "Those who work in social services in this country know that marginalized women and girls are specifically targeted. Pimps go to juvenile justice facilities, to group homes, to homeless shelters." In the US, 1.6 million children run away from home each year; on average, it takes 48 hours for a runaway girl to be approached about entering into prostitution.

The demand side of this equation is less clear. There is great financial gain from the trafficking industry, and contrary to what Hollywood says, it's not hard out there for a pimp -- they face very few sanctions, Shifman says. "But even less visible are the real drivers of the industry -- the demand for women and children, the men who have no name -- they're called johns because there's no better name for them." Johns may be married or partnered; research shows that the majority of men who buy sex are married men. They are American, European, Asian, Latin American; they are of every race and religion and socioeconomic status. Myths tell us that they are single men, who are looking for companionship or sex, who are engaging in harmless behavior. But Shifman shares with us some quotes from men who bought sex, about what they said they were doing: "I use them like I use any other amenity, a restaurant." Another man said, "It's paid rape. You're the dominant person; she has to do what you want." Another man said, "I think about getting even. It's like a kids' game; you're scoring points."

A study in South Africa done on men who admitted that they had raped women showed that most of those women had also purchased sex. The argument is sometimes made that if it were legal to purchase sex, men would not rape women -- but the evidence is to the contrary.

When we think of sex trafficking as a supply and demand driven industry, that helps us think in terms of solutions, Shifman says, and she offers four solutions to sex trafficking:

#1: value and invest in girls -- the most marginalized girls. Less than one half of a cent of every development dollar is invested in girls. Girls need it most because they are most vulnerable. And when an investment is made in a girl or a woman, she invests 90% of it back in her family. Sex trafficking preys on the young; if you invest in girls, giving them assets other than their bodies, you are giving them the best possible protection.

#2: invest in girls and women in smart ways. Too often around the world, girls and women are offered investment opportunities which will not get them out of poverty. We need to invest in smart business opportunities, giving them real opportunities to make a better life. (See the Grameen Nursing Institute; or the Adolescent Girls Initiative [YouTube] in Liberia.)

#3: change the terms of the conversation about sex trafficking. We need to understand this as a system, not a matter of individual choice. Every time a woman sells herself, we need to see this not as an individual act but as part of a system in the majority of the world's illiterate are girls and women, where girls and women make up the poorest of the poor, where girls and women have less political, social and economic power than boys and men. We need to give girls and women real options, better options.

#4: make the demand visible. The men who buy sex are rarely if ever seen or acknowledged, and that allows the flow of women into the trafficking industry. We need to ensure that those who sell sex (the women) are not treated as criminals, and those who buy sex are. In Sweden, selling sex is not a crime but buying sex is. (And in Sweden, trafficking has not increased as much as in other countries -- it's an inhospitable place for traffickers to operate.) We also need to change the social norms around sex and sexual exploitation. As Gloria Steinem said, "We need to eroticize equality." We need to stand with men like those of A Call to Men. We need to teach boys -- and girls -- a different way of being in the world which is premised on cooperation and equality.

Shifman closes by sharing one specific tool: The Girl Effect (2 minutes, YouTube.):

Our third panelist is Nisha Varia, a researcher in the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch who has been focusing on abuses of women's rights in Asia and across the Middle East and wants to put this conversation in the context of broader patterns of migration and labor migration. "If you look at global migration, which is over 200,000,000 people world wide, more than half of these migrants are women," she tells us. In Asia in particular, 50-80% of the migrants who are leaving are women. In Sri Lanka, more than 90% of the women who leave are going to be domestic workers in the Middle East; the money they send home supports their families. The remittances that migrants send home constitute 10-15% of the GDP of the Phillipines.

This context matters, because we need to understand how trafficking and slavery fit into this larger human story. In the last few weeks, she tells us, she's been responding to a few high-profile cases. In one, a domestic worker was abused in Saudi Arabia and no one realized until she returned home to Sri Lanka that her employer had hammered 24 nails into her body. There was no one for her to report that to in Saudi Arabia. In another case, an Asian domestic worker had been burned with an iron (by her employer, who has confessed to this) and was finally brought to a hospital. "These cases," says Varia, "are not exceptions."

There are a couple million domestic workers in the Middle East, Varia says, and there are countless reports of being forced to work around the clock, being forced to work without wages. "I was in Kuwait a few months ago and the Indonesian embassy was sheltering 600 women at a time," she says. "This is true also in countries like Singapore." The intention is not to end migration, but to make it a true choice, something which can be done safely and with guarantees for human rights.

And many of these conditions which enable abuse are directly a result of government policies. This story begins with the status of women and girls around the world. "When we talk about the risks of migration, we want to make sure that women and girls are migrating out of choice, not desperation. When they are migrating out of desperation, they are much more at risk." There are recruitment fees which are often not regulated. An Indonesian domestic worker migrating to Singapore, for instance, is usually coming on a two-year contract; but women in villages in Indonesia don't have bargaining power. So there's a standard practice called "fly now, pay later," in which the domestic worker must forego the first ten months of her salary in order to repay those fees. This puts tremendous financial pressure on these women -- and if they find themselves in an abusive situation, they will feel that they have no choice but to endure it. Varia tells us about a woman who had been raped by her employer daily, and wasn't able to run away until she had repaid her recruitment fees.

Domestic work is often excluded from labor laws. There is no minimum wage, no limits to working hours, no day off once a week -- these basic protections are not provided to domestic workers.

"We create a condition in which abuse and exploitation are rampant," Varia says, moving on to talk about the immigration sponsorship system. In many countries, employees are tied to employers; in the Middle East this is also often the case, and some specific provisions of these systems can trap workers. Most of the abuse cases in the Middle East are documented workers; if a woman is tied to her abusive employer, he may not grant her permission to leave the country or to move to a different employer. "I've talked to women who were forced to work for months or years past their contract because their employer wouldn't let them leave the country." A domestic worker who runs away from her employer in Kuwait can be arrested and will be summarily deported without being able to explain about the abuses she may have faced.

Some of these cases, Varia says, rise to the level of slavery. Others are "just" awful stories of physical and sexual abuse. "What we need to do in order to prevent this type of abuse -- it's quite possible," she says. The UAE, Saudi, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar are all considering new legislation to include domestic works in their labor law. Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia are beginning to recognize that the immigration sponsorship system contributes to abuse, so people are looking for ways to reform that system. Jordan has already included domestic workers in its labor laws. There is pressure afoot to establish global conventions so that women won't be so dreadfully exploited. In June, 2011, there will be a new convention on domestic work. (For more: Domestic Worker Rights.)

We move into Q-and-A, and one of the first questions is about human trafficking in Israel; the panelists point us toward the work of Atzum and also the Task Force on Human Trafficking.

There's also a fascinating brainstorm about the issues which keep women in slavery. The list includes language, resource, and the traffickers threatening a woman's family, children, or relatives back home.

Powerful session. What a way to formally end the day.