Ima Matul, a survivor organizer with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST)
You might not know that January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. You might not even know why we need such an awareness campaign, or that, right here in America, women, children and men are trafficked every day into forced labor or the sex industry.
More than likely, though, you do know that modern slavery exists, but do not know all of what it looks like or what you can do about it. As both a survivor of human trafficking and an advocate working to free and support others, I can tell you.
Some victims are American citizens, others hold valid visas, and some are undocumented immigrants. They are educated or illiterate, young or old, native English speakers or barely fluent. They are found in factories, farms, nursing homes, on the streets, or in your neighbor’s house. In other words, modern slavery fits no stereotype.
For example, in Florida’s Immokalee region, thousands of agricultural workers have been held against their will, beaten, chained, pistol-whipped and even shot for trying to leave their employment picking tomatoes. Trafficking has also been documented in our nation’s food processing plants, where immigrant women have been locked in and forced to work 18 hour days, seven days a week.
I know of young American girls who were forced into the sex industry by acquaintances. I’ve met a man and woman who came to America from the Philippines on promises of legitimate work teaching Tae Kwan Do, only to be forced into servitude at a nursing home facility.
As for me, I came to America in 1997 at 17-years-old with my cousin, believing I would work as a nanny in Los Angeles.
My trafficker took care of my passport, visa and airline ticket, and promised me $150 per month with one day off a week.
But when I arrived, I was separated from my cousin and taken to a home where I was forced to work 18 or more hours every day, endured physical and verbal abuse, and warned that my trafficker would have me arrested if I tried to leave. Without language skills or money, I was terrified and without options.
Finally, after three years, I gathered the courage to send a note to a woman who worked next door. She ultimately arranged my escape, and took me to the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, an anti-trafficking organization that helps victims rebuild their lives and works to end all such human rights violations.
I do not know where I’d be today without my CAST family, who arranged for shelter when I escaped, taught me English, provided a tutor so I could get my GED diploma, and eventually gave me a job as their first survivor organizer.
I also found out my cousin had escaped the traffickers, just a few months before I did.
In September, I traveled with CAST to the Clinton Global Initiative, where President Barack Obama took time to meet with me and other survivors, and announced several initiatives to strengthen the United States’ fight against slavery.
I believe the most important thing he can do right now - and I asked him this in September - is to work with Congress to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), legislation that has provided critical resources and tools for those on the front lines in the fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. The TVPA expired in 2011, and its reauthorization should be a priority this month.
I know firsthand the importance of services provided through TVPA, and have seen the lasting damage when victims do not have access to them.
While in Washington, I met women who are still traumatized by experiences that happened 30 years ago because they did not receive the kind of support that enabled me to get back on my feet.
In his speech, the president said of modern slavery: “It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime.”
Now that you know that January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month; now that you know what slavery looks like, I hope you’ll do something about it.
I hope you’ll watch for signs that something is wrong in the home next door. I hope you’ll ask your legislator to support the passage of the TVPA.