As Americans, we likely view slavery as a relic of the past, or something that only happens in distant lands. But the reality is that right here in the United States — even in Pennsylvania — slavery is all too real. Human trafficking occurs throughout our country, and has devastating consequences for its victims. Traffickers use force, fraud and coercion to control their victims, primarily for sexual exploitation and forced labor. It’s devastatingly common; the Polaris Project estimates that hundreds of thousands of adults and children are trafficked in the United States each year.
Importantly, trafficking does not require that a person be moved across state or international borders; the key feature is that a person is induced into commercial sex or forced labor through fraud, force, or coercion. Traffickers can be part of a criminal network, or can act alone; they can be pimps, gangs, family members, small business owners, or large factory owners. The common feature that they all share is a willingness to exploit humans for profit. Like traffickers, victims of human trafficking can come from all walks of life; typical targets include more vulnerable people, including runaway and homeless teenagers, victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, victims of war or conflict, victims of social discrimination and foreign nationals whose unfamiliarity with the language and culture can be exploited to maintain control. Many victims are children; in 2014, 31.4% of calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center involved minors. Recently, Congress passed legislation aimed at helping youth who are victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
One of the most common forms of modern slavery is sex trafficking — a crime that the state of Pennsylvania only recognized in 2014. Girls and women are forced to prostitute themselves, often in exchange for drugs, and are beaten if they do not make enough money. An recent in The Morning Call explained how one Allentown woman was forced into sexual slavery; after becoming addicted to heroin, “Ashley’s” drug dealers forced her to prostitute herself. Although she earned up to $1,800 in a single day, they paid her only in heroin — typically under $100 worth per day. After she was arrested for prostitution, Ashley was beaten — and called the police to help her escape. These two men were prosecuted for trafficking Ashley and three other women for sex. But drugs are not the only way in which traffickers lure in their victims; traffickers may promise a lucrative job, stability, education or a loving relationship. The trafficker may then abuse his victim, isolate her from friends and family, take her identification and money, and use whatever tactics necessary to control and manipulate his victim. Sex trafficking can happen in a variety of places, from fake massage parlors to truck stops, city streets, strip clubs, online escort services and more.
Labor trafficking is also common in the United States and throughout the world. In this form of trafficking, victims are forced to work for little to no pay in a number of industries. Victims’ immigration status, recruitment debt, isolation or poverty can be used to threaten or coerce them into working against their will. The traffickers exert physical and/or psychological control so that their victims believe they have no choice but to work for their employer. It can occur on farms and in factories, in carnivals and in health and beauty services. A recent exposé by the New York Times highlighted how many women, particularly foreign nationals, are forced to work for little to no pay in nail salons in New York City. The article paints a shocking picture of how these women make as little as $10 to $30 for 10 to 12 hours of work per day — as they tend to the nails of extremely wealthy women. While the state of New York has announced sweeping reforms to protect nail salon employees, there are numerous other industries where forced labor is common, including domestic works in private homes.
Without a doubt, human trafficking IS slavery: people profit from the exploitation and control of fellow human beings. Stopping human trafficking is a complicated matter, but you can help. Learn the signs of human trafficking, and call or text the National Human Trafficking Resource Center if you believe that someone has been trafficked: 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. You can also get involved in the fight to end human trafficking through organizations such as The Polaris Project. Talk openly about human trafficking and its prevalence in the United States. By increasing knowledge and awareness about this crime, we can one day end it through a collaborative effort. Finally, get involved on the local level by volunteering with or donating to Blackburn Center — our efforts to end gender violence are an important component of the fight to end human trafficking. Together, we CAN make a difference!