People for sale? – Part 1 of 2: What’s often left unsaid and unreported in the world of modern slavery

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

In the mid 90s, advocates at the Asian & Pacific Islander Women & Family Safety Center (APIWFSC) were alarmed by a disturbing trend in domestic violence cases. Aside from suffering abuse, clients reported being forced into labor and prostitution without pay.

Finally in 2000, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the United Nation’s human trafficking protocol, known as the Palermo Protocol, gave a legal definition to the trend of modern slavery and brought it to the world’s attention.

Slavery on our doorstep

Emma Catague, community organizing programming manager of APIWFSC, approached state Rep. Velma Veloria  with her concerns over cases of mail-order brides who were abused, forced into labor, and even murdered. Their efforts to combat such abuses led Veloria to authorize the Washington state anti-trafficking law in 2002, the first anti-trafficking state law in the nation, which was signed into law the following year.

It took six years before the first prosecution took place under the state law, which some understood to mean that human trafficking wasn’t prevalent in Washington. However, that was not the case.

“We did one trafficking case where we went into a basement, and these victims slept in a box with a blanket, a mattress, and a pillow. There were eight boxes, and they fed them maybe just bread. It was almost like a prison war camp. They would take them, sell their services, and bring them back. It was inhumane,” said Lieutenant Eric Sano of the Seattle Police Department’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit.

Included in the high number of cases is the 2006 investigation of two brothels and an escort service in Seattle, dubbed “Operation Traffick Jam,” which resulted in the arrest of nine people. Such cases of large crime rings and young girls kept in brothels represent the common and seedier side of human trafficking commonly portrayed in movies and news stories. However, advocates have reported dealing with more single cases of victims kept as domestic servants, waiters, and farm or factory workers. These cases are less often recognized for being cases of human trafficking.

“The problem that I see around the community around here is that even if there is forced labor exploited in restaurants or other forms of work places, they don’t recognize that as trafficking,” said APIWFSC Executive Director Bincy Jacob.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen and assisted quite a few Asian victims and even often times with traffickers who feel that they did nothing wrong,” said Catague.

An estimated 270,000 people are subjected to forced labor and sexual exploitation in industrialized countries, according to United Nation’s International Labor Organization, particularly in areas that are centers for international transport or with immigrant communities and opportunities for small businesses and agricultural or factory work. The U.S. State Department estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the country each year. In Washington, many victims come in from the waterways across the Canadian borders, from Mexico, from other states, and through international airports.

Neighbors become victims

Nom, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is an educated single mother. She had a stable job as a bank teller in Thailand before befriending Lisa, her trafficker. Lisa, a U.S. permanent resident was a well-known donor in Nom’s community, returning several times a year to donate money to temples.

Nom struggled to support her 6-year-old son and mother. She decided to work temporarily for one of Lisa’s successful businesses in the United States.

“Before I came here to the United States, I had many beautiful dreams,” said Nom. “[Lisa and her family members] promised me that they would love me as a family member, like their daughter and sister.”

Nom was one of the many women that Lisa brought into the country through a fraud marriage. Each woman paid Lisa a travel fee of $30,000.  Women who could not afford the fee were contracted to work a set amount of time to work off the cost.

Upon arrival, Lisa began collecting fees for their food, room, utilities, and personal needs.

Unlike smuggling, a contracted movement of people across an international border for a fee that ends upon arrival at the destination, trafficking involves a relationship that is prolonged by a form of bondage that can include abuse, threats against family members, sexual assault, blackmail, and exorbitant debt. The definition of human trafficking provided by state and federal law places emphasis on exploitation, the force, fraud, or coercion used to engage someone into forced labor or involuntary servitude.

“Before the law, when you see a situation, you know it’s bad. You know the person is being exploited, but there was no box, there was no definition to check off and say, ‘Okay, this is what is happening,’ ” said Jacob. “We, as an organization, are pushing the model that all exploitation of another human being is wrong. Sometimes, that might not rise to the level of the legal definition of trafficking, but unless we fight all forms of exploitation, we can’t fight against human trafficking.”

Nom worked for Lisa for two years as a masseuse and a prostitute before she was rescued. At that time, she still owed Lisa $25,000.

“Every day, they pushed me to do a job that I did not want to do. I had to work from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. each day. Sometimes, they woke me up at 2 a.m. and forced me to work. They did not allow me to go anywhere by myself. During that time, I was hopeless, depressed, and scared because I didn’t see any future,” said Nom.

Looking to the future

While the Trafficking Victims Protection Act provides services to foreign victims of human trafficking at a federal level, the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Office for Victims of Crime focuses on providing support for local law enforcement and victim services to train and fund task forces encountering victims in their daily operations.

Refugee Women’s Alliance (REWA), the local International Rescue Committee (IRC), APIWFSC, and others make up the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network and acquired funding in 2005, allowing service organizations to provide culturally sensitive services to victims and promote awareness in local communities.

“Trafficking is a hidden issue. A lot of the communities, especially the ethnic communities, don’t want to know that this is happening within their community,” said Anne Ko, human trafficking caseworker at REWA.

Sano, a co-chair of the Washington Advisory Committee on Trafficking (WashACT), meets regularly with a committee of members made up of local law enforcement, service-based NGOs, and local officials to discuss challenges in handling trafficking cases, identifying ways to be sensitive to victims, and communicating with grassroots organizations.

“I think we want to make it to a point where, when we mention human trafficking, we want [it] to be like domestic violence where people understand it, understand the laws. We want people to know, just like how they do now that they can’t hit their wives, that they cannot bring people into this country and use them and abuse them,” said Sano, who hopes greater awareness will lead to more allocated funding, more counseling and shelters available to victims, and a more receptive community.

“People have this misconception that [victims] are just people who are different from us somehow,” said Jacob. “[But] they’re the people in their families who are innovative, resourceful, and smart. They’re trying to help their families. Many immigrants have been exploited when they come here, just in different ways.” ♦

This story was written with the support of Sea Beez, a capacity building program funded by the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Matching Fund.

For more information, visit

Tiffany Ran can be reached at

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