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NAPAWF Discusses Human Trafficking

By Jackie Bong-Wright

The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) held a talk on Human Trafficking on November 7, 2001 in Washington, D.C. NAPAWF, founded in 1996, is dedicated to the political empowerment of Asian Pacific American women. The D.C. chapter gathered five prominent panelists to discuss human trafficking.

Campaign for Migrant and Domestic Workers’ Rights

Joy Zarembka is Director of the Campaign for Migrant and Domestic Workers, an advocacy coalition of service agencies, religious groups and social action organizations. The Campaign, based at the Institute for Policy Studies in D.C., works to strengthen protections for migrant domestic workers.
Ms. Zarembka told the audience that every year, nearly 4,000 poor women from developing countries came to the U.S., mostly to the Washington area, as domestic workers for officials of embassies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Although their employers, she said, are required to abide by U.S. labor laws — paying the minimum wage, allowing two days off a week, providing workers compensation insurance, paying Social Security and Medicare taxes and federal and state unemployment taxes — abuse is rampant, and their treatment is not monitored.
Ms. Zarembka cited examples of Asian, Latin American and African maids made to work 12 to 16 hours a day for a fraction of the agreed hourly wage. They are not only exploited, she said, but abused physically and sexually in certain cases. Most are confined to their workplace, virtual prisoners, often working overtime. Ironically, many are victimized by their own countrymen, who often confiscate their passports.
The Campaign, she said, had written to the World Bank and IMF asking them to help inform domestics of their rights, fund an independent monitoring program, require staff members to submit copies of contracts, federal tax forms and proof of wage payment.
In the 1990s, over 30,000 domestics entered the U.S. under A-3 and G-5 visas to work for Embassy and international agency staff. If they leave their employers for another job, they lose their legal status and become subject to deportation. Most are treated equitably, but thousands have fled their employers over the years. Some have filed lawsuits in U.S. courts for back wages and damages.
In August, 2000, a Gaithersburg man was accused of abusing a 60 year-old Brazilian woman for nearly 20 years was sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison and ordered to pay $110,000 in restitution in addition to a $100,000 fine.
Muneer Ahmad, assistant professor of Criminal Justice Clinic at the School of Law, American University, looked at trafficking from a different angle. Large corporations and institutions made huge profits from slavery and trafficking trade throughout the 20th century, he told the audience. He cited sexual abuse and exploitation in the garment and other industries.
Things are changing, however, he said. Labor and community advocates are urging policy changes to combat the sweatshops and the organized criminals behind them. Boycotts have been staged in some cases. Ahmad gave two reasons for this. First, various organizations are taking the side of the victims, not rallying around the defenders as they did before, forcing the issue to be addressed. Secondly, the oppressed have started to stand up and fight for their rights. Ahmad called them heroes and freedom fighters.

Human Rights Standards for the Treatment of Trafficked Persons

Thanks to social workers, church groups, human rights advocates, immigration attorneys and former domestics themselves, the scale of lawbreaking has diminished. That is what Ann Jordan, Director of the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons at the International Human Rights Law Group, told the audience. They are basing their struggle, she said, on international human rights instruments. These international norms, she said, can and should be used to protect the rights of victims of trafficking, including those who have been subjected to involuntary servitude, forced labor or slavery-like practices. These instruments should be the basis for legal remedies and non-discriminatory treatment, as well as restitution, compensation and rehabilitation.
However, U.S. immigration law, Jordan added, has contributed to workers’ vulnerability. Victims are reluctant to report abuses, she said, because even when charges are brought against traffickers, the new temporary S visa does not provide any relief or assistance to the victims beyond the term of the court case. If their case is dismissed, they not only face deportation, but risk reprisals from the traffickers back home for reporting their crime to the authorities.
She urged that states give the victims temporary residence visas, including the right to work, for the duration of any criminal, civil or other legal action, as well as the right to seek asylum. States should also provide victims with adequate health and other social services during the period of temporary residence. Overall, she said, police and prosecutors should ensure that their efforts to punish traffickers are implemented within a system that safeguards the rights of the victims to privacy, dignity and safety.
As far as the traffickers are concerned, Jordan concluded, states should deploy multi-disciplinary and multi-level strategies to combat the sophisticated networks operating throughout the world. They should also work together with non-government organizations (NGOs) to ensure that traffickers are not able to find a “safe haven” anywhere in the world.

U.S. Department of Justice Action

The fourth speaker, Aiko Joshi of the Criminal Section of the Division of Civil Rights at the Department of Justice, said the U.S. was getting tougher with human trafficking. She noted that two thirds of the women in less-developed countries were particular victims of the world’s post-cold-war economic disparities, and made up the majority of the world’s slave workers. Traffickers, offering them jobs as models or waitresses, pressed them into forced work as domestics or prostitutes.
She reminded her audience of several high profile cases, including that of the 70 hearing-impaired Mexicans who had been sexually assaulted, electrocuted, brutalized and traumatized. The perpetrators were brought to trial, including the main recruiter, who was Mexican herself.
Another case involved a large ring in Atlanta which smuggled in about 1,000 women, as young as 13, from China, Laos, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, and distributed them to brothels in 16 states. Eight Vietnamese and Chinese mob members were indicted in 1999 and are now serving federal sentences. Overall, the INS has identified 250 brothels in 26 states using immigrant women as prostitutes.
In 1999, Joshi explained, the Department of Justice established a “worker force” to investigate the worst labor abuse offenders. The task force draws from Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Labor Department. A health hotline was set up to record cases of abuse. The Attorney General herself, Janet Reno, decided to investigate and prosecute these cases, saying that the task force aimed to root out “the serious problem of modern-day slavery” in the United States. Bill Lann Lee, the acting assistant general for civil rights and co-chairman of Reno’s task force, said that abuses were so severe that they rose to the level of “involuntary servitude.”
Bharathi Venkatraman, also with the Justice Department’s Crime Section, was the last speaker. She said the Department had taken positive steps to prevent further abuse and enforce legislation in workers’ rights cases. She recommended that victims designated as material witnesses be provided more social and medical services, interpreting, and transportation. The community needed to be made aware of these vulnerable workers through the dissemination of information about victims’ rights.
It was reported that the Inter-Agency Council on Women put the value of the
global slave trade at around $9 billion. “It’s incredibly lucrative, the fastest-growing enterprise behind guns and drugs in this country,”exclaimed Theresa Loar, the Inter-Agency Council director.

Trafficking of Victims Protection Act

In early 2000, Trafficking of Victims Protection Act (HR 3244) sponsored by Representatives Sam Gejdenson (D-CT) and Chris Smith (R-NJ) make it possible for domestic workers to receive protection and other assistance while pursuing legal recourse against their employers. In October of the same year, the situation was so serious that the U.N. Crime Commission met in Vienna to draft an international treaty to combat human trafficking worldwide. The treaty recognized that psychological coercion, not just the use of force, was the main tool of traffickers. By the end of the same month, President Clinton signed a bill giving temporary asylum to the victims and making life in prison a possible penalty for the perpetrators.
What more might be done right here close to home? Joy Zarembka’s Campaign has recommended that Congress require the Immigration and Naturalization Service to refuse A-3 and G-5 visas when the prospective employer is found to have violated U.S. law.