U.S. Human Trafficking No Small Operation

Around the world, countless people continue to be exploited for profit. In fact, experts say human trafficking is the second largest illicit business in the world after drugs. Guest host Jennifer Ludden talks more about human trafficking with NPR correspondent Mandalit del Barco.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Around the world, countless people continue to be exploited for profit. In fact, experts say human trafficking is the second largest illicit business in the world after drugs. The U.N. estimates that last year annual profits from trafficking forced labor were more than $31 billion. And it happens not just in developing countries, but also parts of this country, especially in the places many immigrants first land, cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles.

NPR correspondent Mandalit del Barco has been looking into this phenomenon in L.A., and she's with us in our studios in California. Hi, Mandalit.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Hi, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: I understand that you have met with a woman who was the victim of human trafficking. Why don't we begin by hearing her story?

DEL BARCO: Well, Jennifer, I met a woman named Kanti Salgado(ph). She's 32 years old but when she was 19 she decided to leave Sri Lanka to help her parents who were both sick and they needed medicine. She said she got a job in Singapore working for an older couple. After two years, they took her with them to Los Angeles to stay with their daughter and her family.

Ms. KANTI SALGADO: They didn't come back so I ask question from her daughter. What happened? My family need money. My parents need to eat. They need to buy food. And they need to buy medication. There is nobody to help and what happened? I need to know what's going on. She told me that I have to clean the house. I have to cook. I have to take care of the kids. I have to do the laundry. I have to do the gardening. I have to wash the car, wash the garage, wash the driveway, everything.

DEL BARCO: Did they pay you?

Ms. SALGADO: For two years, they didn't pay me. And the - that's why I keep asking her that I don't want anything. I just want to go back home because they was holding my passport, and I don't know anybody here. And I don't know how to speak English that time.

DEL BARCO: You speak English very well now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SALGADO: Thank you. And I was afraid. I don't know anybody else than them in the United States.

DEL BARCO: Jennifer, Kanti told me that she was never able to leave the house in those two years. She stayed without any new clothes, just cooking and cleaning and taking care of the kids, sometimes till four in the morning without any break. Finally somebody, a neighbor, perhaps, who saw her, called the immigration authorities and they came and got her.

LUDDEN: It's a terrible story. Mandalit, can you give me any sense of the scope of this problem. I mean do we know how big it is in the United States?

DEL BARCO: Well, unfortunately Kanti's story is not the only one. And it's really difficult to get a complete and accurate count of the victims. They're in the shadows. But there are some estimates of 17 to 18,000 men, women and children who come into the U.S. every year. The CIA estimates maybe 50,000 men, women and children come into states like California and Florida and New York. Immigration agents estimate that in Los Angeles alone there are 10,000 women being held against their will in brothels.

And, Jennifer, there's more of this going on under people's noses than you would think. You know, people literally held captive and forced to work for no pay. It happens in wealthy Beverly Hills mansions. And I met a group of women like this who had been in the situation through an organization based here in L.A. called CAST, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. I spoke to the executive director of CAST, Kay Buck, about people who are forced into labor.

They don't get paid. They're pretty much - I mean, they're slaves. Is that what you call them, slaves?

Ms. KAY BUCK (Executive Director, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking): Yes, absolutely. It's a modern-day form of slavery, where people, either through force or fraud or coercion, and sometimes that's psychological coercion, are not able to leave the situation.

LUDDEN: Is it completely different between the sex trafficking, and the human trafficking? What - is there a difference, or is it sometimes they same thing?

Ms. BUCK: That's a really good question. Well, human trafficking, or slavery as we call it, encompasses both sex trafficking and forced labor trafficking. So you have situations where people are forced to work in brothels or massage parlors here in Los Angeles, or really throughout the world. And then there are laborer types of trafficking, which could include sweatshops, domestic servitude, agricultural trafficking, so people who are forced into labor in fields. You know, that is oftentimes the food that we see on our tables each and every day.

LUDDEN: Mandalit, do the people who end up being basically these indentured servants, these slaves, do they know at all what they're getting into? Are they kind of smuggled from the home country, or is this a surprise once they arrive in the U.S.?

DEL BARCO: Well, Conti(ph) told me that a lot of people in her country, Sri Lanka, are very poor, and they don't know what they're getting into when they sign up to, you know, go work in the United States or in other countries. So it's not something that people necessarily willingly go into. I think they're often tricked into working for free, and you know that there are a lot of immigrants who pay to get smuggled into the United States.

That's a different thing. They're paying to get here, and they generally are not made to work for free, or they're not held captive in some way. Then again, as you know, a lot of immigrants are terrorized into working to pay back their smugglers, and of course, not all of them get paid what they should be getting paid for their work.

Sometimes, these people are escaping from violence and poverty in their home countries with the promise of a better life here, and they don't know that they're necessarily going to be ending up as slaves.

LUDDEN: Can you tell us what has happened with the young woman that you spoke with, Conti? First, what happened to the people who had enslaved her?

DEL BARCO: Well, as far as Conti knows, nothing has happened to them, and that's a big problem. Usually, these people are not prosecuted for this. It's hard to track this sort of thing down, and not even the human trafficking rings get prosecuted much.

Kay Buck from CAST said that they get 40 new cases each year, of people who have managed to escape their captors. They helped them to recover and to get on their feet again. Some of them, like Conti, have traveled to Sacramento to petition for more help to get green cards for victims of human trafficking.

LUDDEN: And how is Conti doing now?

DEL BARCO: Well, Conti has gone from being a victim to being a survivor, to actually being an activist, helping to raise awareness about this issue.

Ms. CONTI: I find many stories similar to my story. Some are worse than my story, so…

DEL BARCO: Some are worse?

Ms. CONTI: Yes, so I - that helped me because I know that it's not happen only to me, and I'm not the last one, either, because it still is happening, but because we started the group, we know maybe it's one day at a time we're working for it to stop this, and it will.

DEL BARCO: Conti is not only an ambassador for CAST, trying to get out the word about this slavery, she is now a nurse, and she is also preparing to run the marathon for the fifth time. So she's a success story.

LUDDEN: Wow. Mandalit del Barco is an NPR correspondent who works in Los Angeles. Mandalit, thank you so much.

DEL BARCO: Thank you, Jennifer.

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