This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. While the war was fought over a fusion of slavery and states’ rights issues, slavery didn’t end in the United States until December 1865 with passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Or did it? Consider these current event stories:
Green cards withheld
Several hundreds workers from India are seeking a class action suit that brings human trafficking charges against Signal International, an oilrig construction company that hired them to work as welders and pipe fitters in Mississippi and Texas shipyards after Hurricane Katrina. The workers claim Signal forced them into modern-day slavery for more than a year. The suit says Signal promised them green cards that never came and forced them to live behind barbed wire in crowded, prison-like barracks with unsanitary conditions.
Attorney Ellaine Carr represents victims of human trafficking in Mississippi and Louisiana. Traffickers, she says, entrap illegal immigrants and those with visas by loaning them thousands of dollars for passage then making it nearly impossible to repay.
“The workers [came] here legally, but when they got here, there’s nothing for them,” Carr says. “They’re placed in apartment complexes. Individually, [they] are charged $300, $500. I saw one case they’re charging the worker $2,000 for a bed space. The worker can’t get out of the debt.”
Then there’s sex slave survivor Audrey Porter of My Life My Choice: “I was introduced to the Combat Zone [formerly a Boston “red light district”] by a guy that I thought was my boyfriend at a very early age. Ended up not getting out until age 30. Some of the experiences I had were rapes, beatings.”
Traffickers subject their victims to horrific conditions. “They are being tortured,” Porter says. “They are being held in basements, forced to take pictures with the promise of a better life. In this area, it’s usually the kids that are in the system, a lot of inner-city children, the poor kids, with the promise of ‘I’ll make you a star.'”
Modern-day slavery, whether it is sexual exploitation, forced labor or debt bondage, occurs in every state in the country.
Dirty Dozen decreases
Two states that lagged far behind in attacking modern-day slavery are, oddly, states with positive historical records when it comes to pre-Civil War slavery: Ohio, crisscrossed by Underground Railroad routes, and Massachusetts, a leader in the abolition movement. But when it came to stomping on modern-day slavery, these two states were among the Dirty Dozen that failed to recognize sexual slavery and forced labor as multi-billion dollar industries.
Thankfully Ohio and Massachusetts are waking up to the crisis.
Proposed Massachusetts bill
On Jan. 20 Ohio Attorney General Martha Coakley introduced a bill to the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives that would list trafficking as a specific crime and create penalties of up to 20 years in prison for those who traffic persons for sexual exploitation and 15 years for trafficking for forced labor. A second offense would carry a mandatory 10-year sentence. Harsher penalties would be meted out to those who exploit persons under 18.
The proposed law, supported by a coalition of police chiefs, legislators, personnel, labor unions and advocacy groups, would allow Massachusetts to seize funds of convicted traffickers to pay victims restitution.
New Ohio legislation
Students at the University of Dayton were instrumental in securing passage of Ohio Senate Bill 235, which makes human trafficking a felony offense with stronger penalties for abduction and kidnapping if they involve involuntary servitude.
Susan Hesselgesser, education director for the League of Women Voters, declares, “This no-brainer legislation that had been languishing for months was passed within days. Had the bill remained idle…Ohio would have remained one of the few states in the nation without tough regulations on the sex trafficking of juveniles.”