Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Problem of Human Trafficking in the U.S.

From the National:

By Sharmila Devi

August 2, 2008

When the hunger became too much, the two young Indonesian maids would rummage through the rubbish bins for discarded food, knowing that to be caught would inevitably bring a beating.

Their life of servitude included 24-hour days, seven days a week, that ended only when one of the women escaped and told their story to the authorities.

What has shocked America is that this story of human rights abuse, which ended last week with a court award of US$1 million (Dh3.67m) in compensation, happened on its own doorstep, in a country that prides itself as being a beacon of freedom and liberty.Instead, what is emerging is a growing problem of human trafficking in the US, with countless thousands of illegal immigrants arriving every year to work in degrading conditions as domestic servants, farm labourers, hotel workers and prostitutes.

The government admits it has a problem

“Trafficking and exploitation plague all nations and no country, even ours, is immune,” Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, wrote in the introduction to the US state department’s 2008 overview of global trafficking, released in June.Stories of abuse in other parts of the world have received extensive media attention in recent years. The most recent report grades countries according to a three-tier list, with the most serious category for “governments that do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so”.

At the same time, the US is fighting its own battle against exploitation. “The US is a destination country for thousands of men, women and children trafficked largely from East Asia, Mexico and Central America for the purposes of sexual and labour exploitation,” said the 2008 human trafficking report.

“A majority of foreign victims identified during the year were victims of trafficking for forced labour. Some men and women, responding to fraudulent offers of employment in the United States, migrate willingly – legally and illegally – but are subsequently subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude or debt bondage at work sites or in the commercial sex trade.”

“They are so scared and trust no one,” said Joyce Gill-Campbell of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a group that tries to improve conditions in the sector.

The US Census Bureau estimates there could be up to 1.5 million domestic workers, but an exact count is impossible because many are in the country illegally or do not report income taxes.Reform has come mostly at the local rather than national level.

For example, in 2003, New York’s City Council was the first to pass domestic-worker legislation, requiring employers to inform employees in writing about wages and duties. Activists are trying to make a difference in other cities, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and Houston.

There are frequent setbacks. In 2006, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, vetoed a bill that would have ensured overtime for nannies and allowed them and other domestic workers to sue for back wages, saying it would have encouraged frivolous legislation. Nonetheless, state lawmakers are still pushing for reform.

One of the hardest tasks facing groups such as DWU is getting workers to speak out, particularly those who migrated recently or are illegal. The group works through churches and colleges to reach out to them.

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