Hawaii group seeks
halt to human trafficking

In the 21st century, slavery is a worldwide problem in which psychological and financial coercion have as strong a grip on victims as leg shackles and a foreman's whip, say experts who met at the Capitol yesterday to discuss the problem.

The U.S. Justice Department estimates that 45,000 to 50,000 people are brought into this country every year and exploited to work in sweat shops, plantation-style farms, prostitution and domestic-service jobs such as house maids, nannies or gardeners. Worldwide, it is estimated that 27 million people are enslaved.

"The international trafficking of humans has been called the downside of globalization," said Nancie Caraway, director of the Women's Human Rights Projects at the Globalization Research Center at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

Caraway and other experts in human trafficking spoke at the Capitol during an informational hearing to raise public awareness of the worldwide human trafficking problem.

Caraway said that quantifying Hawaii's trafficking problem is difficult, since it is part of an underground economy.

"Hawaii is a logical transit route from South Asia and Southeast Asia where we know trafficking is very high," said Caraway, who is also head of the Hawaii Anti-Trafficking Task Force.

The most recent slavery case tried in Hawaii was the 2003 prosecution of Kil Soo Lee, a sweatshop owner who was convicted of holding 200 Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant workers in involuntary servitude in an American Samoa garment factory. He is still awaiting sentencing. To date, it is the largest human trafficking case prosecuted by the Justice Department.

Jennifer Stanger, of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking in Los Angeles, said trafficking victims are similar to domestic-violence victims.

"People always ask why don't these people just leave?" said Stanger. "They don't understand the psychological coercion and manipulation."

Stanger said victims are psychologically abused into submission and the belief they cannot escape. She said many slaves are in "debt servitude," in which they have paid someone to transport them to a destination on the promise of a job and a better life. When they arrive, they are saddled with a large debt and imprisoned doing work that cannot ever pay the debt.

In a 1995 landmark case in El Monte, Calif., it was revealed that about 70 Thai workers were enslaved in a suburban apartment complex sewing designer clothes 18 hours a day. From their scant wages, they were expected to pay for rent, food and medicine from "the company store" at inflated prices that ensured their continued servitude.

The case led to a new federal law, and merchandisers agreed to a multi-million dollar settlement.

Under the federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, trafficking people into servitude, sex trafficking and any form of forced labor is a crime. Victims who cooperate with the government are able to apply for special three-year visas and eventually apply for citizenship. Over the past three years, about 500 such visas have been applied for and approved.


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