New/US: Slave trade still alive in U.S.

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Subject: New/US: Slave trade still alive in U.S.
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Tue Feb 15 2000 - 09:46:04 EST


Slave trade still alive in U.S.
Erin Mccormick and Jim Herron Zamora
San Francisco Examiner, February 13, 2000

Exploited women, children trafficed from poorest nations

Nobee Saeieo thought she was coming from Thailand to the United States as a
$240-a-month cook, but she got much less than she bargained for. She was
forced to fix meals, give manicures and serve guests on her knees, 18 hours
a day, seven days a week.

Dung, a 13-year-old from Vietnam, was sold to a Silicon Valley executive,
who planned to bring her here to satisfy his sexual demands, federal
prosecutors say.

These are just two of the 150 people who federal prosecutors say have been
victims of slavery or indentured servitude in the past five years.

The Bay Area was shocked last month when Berkeley's largest landlord was
charged with importing teenage girls from India for sex. Lakireddy Bali
Reddy, free on $10 million bail, has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to
appear in court again Tuesday.

Federal immigration officials say trade in slaves and indentured servants
in the United States is tragically common.

"It's thriving. It's very well-organized. It's very lucrative," said Mark
Riordan, head of Northern California investigations for the federal
Immigration and Naturalization Service. "It's a worldwide problem that
shows up in every major city (in the United States)."

"It's difficult for us to prosecute these cases," he said "These are
situations where the poorest and least sophisticated immigrants are being
exploited."

As many as 50,000 women and children are brought to the United States each
year to be forced into prostitution, bonded sweatshop labor and domestic
servitude, estimated a State Department official last year, citing a
federal study that culled information from sources ranging from deportation
statistics to organized crime trends. Men are also used for forced labor,
but to a lesser degree, said Theresa Boar, head of the State Department's
office for international women's issues.

On Tuesday, a congressional committee will hear testimony on a bill to
increase punishment for people who smuggle or keep indentured workers in
the United States.

"This modern day slave trade is appalling," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-New
Jersey, a sponsor of the bill. "But even more appalling is the idea that we
know about it, have the ability to slow and stop it, and we turn our heads."

Many cases are studies in human cruelty:

In 1995, 76 Thai immigrants were rescued from a cockroach-infested garment
factory in El Monte, Los Angeles County, where they were held behind razor
wire fences and forced to work 16 hours a day.

In 1997, three men were convicted of charges that they kidnapped a
22-year-old woman in China, brought her to the United States and forced her
to work as a prostitute. The men raped her, beat her, burned her with
cigarettes and tattooed her with a gang symbol before she escaped from them
in Los Angeles.

In 1993, 240 starving, sick passengers from China were put ashore by the
freighter Pai Sheng beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Authorities believe the
immigrants were on their way to garment factory and restaurant jobs, where
they would be forced to work off the $30,000 cost of their trips.

In 1997, authorities found nearly 100 deaf Mexicans who were being held as
slaves and forced to sell trinkets on street corners, subways and bus
terminals in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Charlotte, N.C. Two New
York ringleaders were sentenced to prison.

Hae Jung Cho, who heads the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, a
Los Angeles-based nonprofit, said she believes the vast majority of
servitude cases in the United States never come to the attention of
authorities. Many people don't get help because they don't know how to
communicate with authorities or they fear physical punishment or
deportation, she said.

"Of the thousands of cases that might be out there, we only see a few,"
said Cho, "These people are really afraid. No matter how exploitive their
situation is, they're still more afraid of the INS."

The United Nations reports that around the world 4 million people a year
are traded against their will to work in a form of servitude. The bulk of
them come from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, according
to federal reports.

"Trafficking often originates in countries with poverty, few opportunities
for women, and few laws to prosecute traffickers," said Laura Lederer, a
Harvard professor, in congressional testimony.

The countries where the State Department is focusing its efforts to stop
human trafficking include Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines,
Ukraine, Russia, the Czech Republic, Albania, Bosnia and Nepal.

Ann Jordan, who monitors trafficking for the International Human Rights Law
Group in Washington, said organized crime groups from Eastern Europe and
Southeast Asia have learned to make big profits with little risk by dealing
in humans.

"If you get caught trafficking drugs, you can be executed in some
countries," she said. "But if you

take a human being and you threaten them and intimidate them, it's very
safe. The punishment is minimal. You can make a lot of money."

Indentured servitude is in part spawned by the high cost of gaining entry
into the United States, with immigrants from Asia often paying up to
$50,000 to smugglers.

Since few workers from developing nations can afford such fees, immigrants
will often agree to work off their smuggling debts over a period of years.

"Where does a Chinese farmer get $40,000 to pay off a smuggler?" Riordan
said. "They may go in and work in a restaurant for 10 years to pay off
their debt.

In Michigan, INS investigators found 18 Indian immigrants - all working off
thousands of dollars in debt - crammed into a three-bedroom apartment
rented from their boss for $600 a month per person.

Mike Gennaco, a federal prosecutor who has overseen numerous immigrant
abuse cases in Southern California, said workers often are not physically
confined, but held captive by psychological coercion.

"Threats can be used to essentially create a prison without walls," he said.

Like many victims of immigrant exploitation, Saeieo, 59, the cook from
Thailand, was initially eager to come to the United States to work. But
what she experienced after her employer brought her here in 1991 was
nothing like the job she was promised.

A jury found that Saeieo was kept in indentured servitude by her boss,
Supawan Veerapol, a wealthy Thai woman. Veerapol brought Saeieo to Southern
California and forced her and other servants to work long hours in her Thai
restaurant and her posh Woodland Hills home in Los Angeles County,
prosecutors said.

At times, Saeieo testified, she was required to serve Veerapol's party
guests while crawling on her knees - an ancient practice that Thai royalty
once imposed on servants.

Saeieo told The Examiner her work days typically began at 7:30 a.m., when
she fixed breakfast for Veerapol and her teenage son. By 9:30 a.m. she was
driven to Veerapol's restaurant, where she said she usually cooked, cleaned
and served until 11 at night. Then, she said, she was taken back to
Veerapol's house and was expected to do more housework - sometimes until as
late as 1:30 a.m.

"I would say, 'I'm tired,' " Saeieo said. "She would just yell at me. She
yelled all the time."

Saeieo said she was forced to wash Veerapol's car, clean her pool, cook her
meals and give her manicures, pedicures and massages.

She said for a while her "bedroom" was a tiny space on the floor of a
closet-size utility room where Veerapol kept her washer and dryer. But when
Veerapol's son was ill, Saeieo said she had to sleep on the floor near the
bed in case he needed anything.

Veerapol "treated me very badly," Saeieo said. "She'd tell me, 'If you
leave I'm going to kill you and kill your family in Thailand.' I was very
scared."

Saeieo said she was not allowed to go anywhere alone and Veerapol would
often intercept her mail, including letters from her family in Thailand.
Prosecutors later discovered Veerapol had tallied $85,000 in credit card
debt using the names of Saeieo and other servants.

Last year, after two of Veerapol's domestic workers escaped, the employer
was tried and convicted on charges of indentured servitude, harboring
illegal immigrants and using her workers' signatures to falsely obtain
credit. She was sentenced to eight years in federal prison Jan. 10.

Nonprofit groups say going to the authorities isn't always a good solution.
Even if their tormentors are prosecuted, the immigrant can be deported,
said Jenny Stanger of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

Saeieo was granted a temporary visa to stay here, but she's waiting for
permission to work. She received no restitution and now lives in a homeless
shelter.

The 13-year-old Vietnamese girl, Dung, never made it to the United States.
But in an arrest warrant, federal prosecutors charge that the Silicon
Valley executive, Michael Rostoker, negotiated to buy her from her family
to bring her to the United States for sex.

Rostoker went to Vietnam to "marry" Dung last April and was trying to
obtain a forged birth certificate showing she was 18 so he could bring her
back as his wife, according to the affidavit.

Federal agents obtained a series of e-mail messages he allegedly exchanged
with Dung, in which he tells her she must "stay very slim (size 00) and
pretty" and satisfy his sexual needs.

In the e-mails, quoted in the arrest warrant, he scolds her for saying that
she is too young for sex.

"In Saigon, it is easy to find girls who are 12+ years of age (younger than
you) who are prostitutes for sex," he says in the e-mail. " . . . so AGE is
NOT an excuse."

Rostoker was arrested in September as he prepared to board a plane,
allegedly on his way to pick up Dung. He is charged with traveling to
engage in sex with a minor

and enticing someone under 18 into sexual activity.

Rostoker, who pleaded not guilty, could not be reached for comment. He is
free on $2 million bail. His attorneys also declined to be interviewed.

Kathryn McMann, a professor of women's studies and international studies at
Cal State Long Beach who has traveled in Asia to research female servitude,
said families sometimes have little choice but to send their children into
deplorable situations.

McMann worked with a human rights group in Cambodia that rescued young
girls from brothels and returned them to their families. In some cases,
rescue workers found the girls had been abducted. In others, the parents
had been misled about where they were sending their girls. But in others,
families were simply too poor to feed their kids, she said.

"We had one family say 'We can't take her back. We can't feed her,' " she
said. "When you're facing poverty, you might say, 'No matter how horrible
the conditions my daughter is going to face, it can't be worse than not
eating.' "

Melanie Orhant

morhant@igc.org
__________________

Stop-traffic is facilitated, international electronic list
funded by the Women's Reproductive Health Initiative
of the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH)
dealing with human rights abuses associated with trafficking
in persons, with an emphasis on public health and trafficking
in persons for forced labor, including forced prostitution,
sweatshop labor, domestic service and some coercive mail
order bride arrangements.
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