Few things are more precious to us Americans than freedom. However, it may surprise you to know that not everyone in our nation is free and that slavery is a growing problem in our country. At this past week’s meeting of my Rotary club, Terry Coonan, director of the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, gave an especially compelling presentation on Human Trafficking. I was looking forward to his talk because I gave a sermon at my synagogue a few years ago on the Tomato on the Seder Plate initiative of Rabbis For Human Rights of North America which focused on the problem of slavery in Florida’s agricultural industry.
Modern slavery, which includes both worker and sex trafficking, is a worldwide problem. According to a 2013 White House report, it is estimated that there are 21 million people who are being held in bondage in the modern world. This is the largest number of people living as slaves in human history. One might think that modern slavery is relegated to the third world countries and remote areas of the world, but modern day slavery is happening throughout the world, including the United States, in both our urban and rural communities. It is especially pervasive in the sex, agricultural, and the hospitality industries. In modern slavery people are not kept captive with chains. Instead, traffickers use force, fraud, and coercion to keep people enslaved. A huge industry, modern slavery generates between $9-12 billion annually in the United States alone. It is said to currently be the second largest criminal industry behind the drug trade.
Even relatively tranquil communities such as Tallahassee are not immune from this problem. One of the major sex trafficking prosecutions in the past 10 years, the Melchor case, began when two women being held captive in a private home in the Killearn neighborhood of Tallahassee escaped and ran door to door seeking help. The women, who had come to the United States based upon the promise of jobs, were forced into prostitution utilizing a mobile brothel model where they were driven to apartments and mobile homes on the outskirts of Tallahassee and forced to perform 25-35 sex acts per night. An ensuing two-year investigation revealed an international conspiracy that trafficked women from South America into multiple Florida cities for the purpose of forcing them into prostitution.
Melchor is not the only case to arise in the Florida panhandle. The Destin King labor trafficking case involved workers at the Sandestin Hilton and other hotels along the Gulf Coast. The workers were young women aged 19 -23 from eastern Europe who came to the United States upon the promise of employment at Disney. When they arrived in the United States they were told that the promised Disney jobs weren’t available, but that they could work at hotels in the Florida panhandle. They found themselves living 15-20 people in a single condo, while working for less than minimum wage. As if paying less than a living wage wasn’t enough, their employers charged them for things such as rent, job placement fees, transportation fees, and $1500 – $2000 for visa processing fees. The young women were not employed directly by the hotels, but they worked for subcontractor corporations that negotiated contracts to supply the workers to the hotels. The subcontractor corporations were able to submit low bids for the contracts due to their failure to pay even a minimum wage to the workers. The hotels were able to claim ignorance of the situation because the women weren’t employed directly by the hotel, although one has to question whether or not the hotels were simply turning a blind eye to the exploitation when they unquestioningly accepted such extremely low bids from the contractors.
As individuals there are some things we can do to help combat modern slavery. There are a number of websites that list possible signs of Human Trafficking such as the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. I’m not going to reproduce the list here, but I do encourage you to make yourself familiar with the possible signs. One thing that I will say is that it is absolutely necessary that we slow down, recognize, and engage with people who are often invisible in our society. We have to take time to notice the hotel maid, the streetwalker, the runaway youth, the homeless, and the agricultural worker and report instances where we suspect involuntary servitude may be happening to the toll free human trafficking number 1-888-373-7888. We need to support businesses that are willing to join Fair Food and Fair Trade programs and to encourage other businesses to join through our purchasing decisions. I also would suggest that supporting businesses that allow their employees to join unions and engage in collective bargaining is yet another way of combating human trafficking.
I hope that this post will inspire you to want to learn more about this huge injustice. I believe that the more attention that can be brought to this subject, the better. As I think about this topic, I can’t help but recall that the Hebrew Bible, at least 36 times, more than any other commandment, repeatedly reminds us that we must treat the stranger kindly because of the Jewish people’s own experience with slavery in Egypt. This is not an issue we can afford to ignore.