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Young adults address slavery, human trafficking

Workers harvest tomatoes at a farm in Immokalee, Fla., where low wages and poor conditions have prompted advocates to lobby for increased pay for farm laborers and protection from abuse. A UMNS photo by Scott Robertson.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
June 20, 2008 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)

The Rev. Neal Christie opens the 2008 Young Adult Ecumenical Forum in Washington. A UMNS photo
by Kathy L. Gilbert.

Early on a typical summer morning, migrant farm workers are awakened by the grinding sound of a truck door sliding open.

Loaded into pickup trucks and driven to lush, green tomato fields, the workers toil from dawn to dusk in temperatures soaring into the 90s, filling and emptying 32-pound buckets of tomatoes.

If they pick two tons, they will make $50.

This scene is being played out daily in places like Immokalee, Fla., and other agricultural hubs in the United States. Farm workers lured to the U.S. with promises of jobs and a better life end up enslaved, living in locked U-Haul trailers or other sub-standard housing. Many are forced to work, robbed of their wages and subjected to abuse.

Romeo Ramirez, who came to Florida from Guatemala, has transformed himself from an abused farm worker to a champion for workers rights as a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Ramirez told a gathering of young adults about his life and the horrors faced by farm laborers working long hours so that consumers can have tomatoes in their fast-food sandwiches and on the grocery shelves.

More than 40 young adults representing many faith groups attended the 2008 Young Adult Ecumenical Forum focusing on slavery and human trafficking in the 21st century. The June 12-15 event was held at Wesley Theological Seminary, a United Methodist-related school in Washington.

Jen Joy McDaniel of the Not For Sale campaign describes atrocities faced by young women forced into prostitution.
A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

In addition to Ramirez, participants heard from members of grassroots organizations committed to ending human trafficking and modern slavery.

The Rev. Neal Christie, executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, opened the forum, telling the young people that "freedom cannot be separate from suffering.

"Slavery doesn't just happen over there. We are all connected to it. We all gain some privilege from this system of slavery," he said. "Every time I go to the supermarket, I am potentially fueling this boom of trafficking."

Christie said many people have stories "that are just under the surface."

"They work as child care providers. They work in the grocery stores. They are cleaning people's homes. You don't know their story. You don't know the slavery they have experienced until you start asking them questions."

A world without slavery

Human trafficking is the modern practice of slavery, said Kristen Brewer, site coordinator for the Polaris Project in Washington. The grassroots organization, formed in 2002 to fight human trafficking and slavery, is named after the north star that guided slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad in the 19th-century America.

Brewer explained what human trafficking means, who is involved and what steps can be taken to stop the practice.

A trafficked person is anyone forced or coerced into labor or sexual exploitation, she said. All children under age 18 are considered trafficking victims even if no force or coercion is used. More than 200,000 American children are at risk of being involved in the sex industry each year, and an estimated 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked in the United States annually.

Kristen Brewer of the Polaris Project speaks to the young adults about commercial sexual exploitation.
A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

Worldwide, there are 27 million slaves today, according to David Batstone, author of Not for Sale. The U.S. Department of Justice has prosecuted slave-trade activity in 91 U.S. cities and in nearly every state. The Federal Bureau of Investigation projects that the slave-trade industry generates $9.5 billion in revenue each year.

Some women end up as sex slaves through false job offers. Others are literally kidnapped from their front steps. Many are sold by their parents, boyfriends and husbands.

After undergoing a "seasoning" process of gang rape, beatings and threats, the victims are too afraid to escape or tell anyone what has happened to them, said McDaniel, coordinator for the Not for Sale campaign in Washington. "Only 10 percent of the offers of jobs abroad are legitimate," she said.

The key to stopping human trafficking is stopping the demand.

McDaniel shared video documentaries produced by the anti-slavery campaign in which young men talked about visiting prostitutes three or four times a week. Brewer said prostitution is often thought of as a "victimless" crime. "Calling someone a prostitute dehumanizes them," she said.

Brewer told the young people that the popular online service Craigslist is used by pimps to advertise sex slaves "because it is free." McDaniel said newspapers like The Washington Post run ads for "massage parlors" that are really fronts for sex slavery.

"That girl dancing in a strip club might be 15 years old, she might be beaten every day," McDaniel said. "Knowing that has to change the way you feel about 'harmless' entertainment."

Most of the time, women and children forced into the industry see 40 to 50 "clients" a day. "Pimps charge $30 for 15 minutes," Brewer said.

Dire consequences

"Behavior viewed as 'boys just being boys' has had destructive consequences far greater than anyone could have imagined," said Brian Shuve, a forum participant and a graduate student in Boston. "This is something we need to share with our friends, colleagues and people from our churches to really show we are in solidarity with the people fighting this."

Julie Bringman (left) and Jeannie Sur participate in the forum's opening worship. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

After hearing the speakers, participants spent time in quiet Bible study in small groups. They also visited the African-American Civil War Memorial and went to see the Emancipation Statue in Lincoln Park.

"It is important to get the word out and let people know what human trafficking is––that it is not just out there but is here in our own neighborhoods," said Michelle Collins, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Collins was struck by the "empowering message" that one person can make a difference.

"We deceive ourselves into thinking migrant workers choose that job, that they are getting minimum wage," said Jeannie Sur, also a member of the ELCA. "It just doesn't hit your brain that they are really being kept in jail for their labor."

Many of the speakers said it was good to see young men participating in the forum.

"I have discovered the value in my own voice and the special role I can play which is something I didn't know before," said John Asher, a member of the Presbyterian church in New York.

Arianne Reagor, a United Methodist in Washington/Oregon, said human trafficking and modern slavery is something she has been studying for the past two years.

"This is something that is a huge passion of mine," she said. "It is interesting to see the different connections that I didn't see before. It is neat to see the different ways I can become involved. It is much more of a reality now than it was before."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


The Rev. Neal Christie: " ... reconciling free people to the reality of slaves"

John Asher: “…men need to speak out…”

Brian Shuve: “…traditional male values glorified.”

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