Friday, March 28, 2008

California Dreaming

By Tony Castro and Harrison Sheppard

From the LA Daily News:

A young Asian woman arrives in Southern California with the promise of a restaurant job and a generous invitation to live for free in her employer's home as she acclimates to her new world. "I couldn't believe it. I thought I was living the American dream," authorities said Thonglim Khamphiranon told friends in her native Thai language.

But the promise of $240 a month to work in a Thai restaurant in the San Fernando Valley turned out to be a nightmare. Her passport was confiscated, Khamphiranon later told activists battling human trafficking, and her ties to the outside world were cut. For six years in the late 1990s, she slaved up to 18 hours a day both at her employer's restaurant and at the woman's home, where Khamphiranon slept on the floor and served her boss on her knees.

It happened not in some ethnic Third World pocket of Los Angeles but in an upscale neighborhood in Woodland Hills. Khamphiranon had become a victim in the estimated $9 billion global industry of human trafficking. "If it can happen in Woodland Hills, it can happen anywhere," said Kay Buck, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, an organization that aids victims of the modern-day slave trade.

While Khamphiranon's case is a decade old, experts say California has grown into the heart of an underground, multimillion-dollar human-trafficking industry in which people are coerced into hard labor or the sex trade through force or fraud, according to a recent 18-month government study.

Golden State lawmakers have begun taking new steps to try to curtail the activity. A proposal introduced recently by the state Senate president pro tem-elect, Darrel Steinberg, D-Sacramento, asks businesses to do more to help eliminate human trafficking. The bill asks retailers and manufacturers to develop and implement policies on how they will comply with federal laws to eliminate slavery and human trafficking.

"Human trafficking and slavery are growing international businesses for the monsters who practice it," said Jim Evans, a spokesman for Steinberg. "In (Senate Bill) 1649, Sen. Steinberg will raise awareness among businesses and consumers that forced labor - whether in America or abroad - should have no place in our economy."

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