The State Department reports on human trafficking.
Thursday, June 8, 2006
We will never know whether the “Slavery in Pebble Beach” story was real. It plays like a made-for-TV movie: Two married Sri Lankans, in the US on travel visas, are lured to the Peninsula by a wealthy family who promise to sponsor them for citizenship. Once here, the Sri Lankans are forced to live apart and to work 15-hour days for peanuts. When they complain, they are threatened with deportation by their employers, who claim to be friends of George W. Bush.
The details make the story compelling. The employers are a couple, Enzo and Sarah Cecconi, who live half-time in Pebble and half-time in Italy, and Sarah Cecconi’s mother, Elizabeth Montegue, happens to be the Dowager Dutchess of Manchester, England. The Sri Lankans, Asoka Jayasinghe and his wife, Lalitha Perera, are compelled to call the Dowager Dutchess “your grace,” while she and her kids heap verbal abuse on them.
We live in a world of poor nations that supply forced labor to rich nations.
Jayasinghe, meanwhile, is the son of a Supreme Court Justice in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
He and Perera—after hiring a local lawyer who accuses the Italian-American couple and the royal mother of holding his clients in virtual slavery—depart to Florida. The Cecconis decamp to Italy. The case proceeds, in fits, for three years.
We’ll probably never know how much of this tale is true, because the case was settled for an undisclosed sum on Monday, one day before the trial was set to begin. It will remain an unbelievable story to many. But to those familiar with global patterns of modern-day slavery, there’s nothing unbelievable about it at all.
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On Monday, the US State Department issued its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, a document that shows that slavery is becoming more common the world over. It concludes that more than a half-million workers each year are trafficked “in response to demand in labor-deficit markets for construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and domestic work.”
Many trafficked workers come from South and East Asian nations, including Sri Lanka. Many of these modern-day slaves are believed to end up in the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But an increasing number seem to be coming to America.
According to the report: “Over the past five years, forced labor operations have been reported in at least 90 US cities.” The State Department report does not venture to guess how many workers are being held in virtual slavery in this country, but a study by the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley, published in 2004, concluded: “At any given time 10,000 or more people work as forced laborers in scores of cities and towns across the country. And it is likely that the actual number is much higher.”
More than one in four of the US cases studied for the Trafficking in Persons Report involved forced labor for domestic service.
Sri Lankan domestic slaves, with stories often much worse than those alleged by the Sri Lankans of Pebble Beach, have become a worldwide phenomena. The Middle East Report, an academic journal published in Washington, DC, describes a criminal economy in which Sri Lankan women, and some men, have become targets for human traffickers and their ultra-rich customers. Many seem to be enslaved in Lebanon or, again, the Gulf States. But domestic slavery is increasingly showing up on our shores.
The State Department details a case in which two Cameroonian girls, aged 14 and 17, were recruited to Washington with the promise of studying in the US in exchange for providing child-care and domestic help. Once here, they were confined to their employers’ home, “working in excess of 14 hours a day under threat of violence and deportation.” The report includes the case because it represents a growing trend.
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Another profoundly disturbing section of the Trafficking in Persons Report concludes that US taxpayers are now helping to finance the modern-day slave trade. As reported in the San Jose Mercury News this week, private contractors in Iraq, working for the US Department of Defense, are “import[ing] thousands of laborers into Iraq from impoverished countries, often employing fraud or coercion...mak[ing] it difficult for workers to escape employment.”
And that’s not the worst of it. The report also documents cases, in the hundreds of thousands, of women—mostly young girls—being sold into sexual slavery. In 2002, a helicopter mechanic for DynCorp in Bosnia, testified to Congress about DynCorp employees who were allegedly buying women and girls to keep as sex slaves.
This is an appalling fact of our times. We live in a world of slave owners and slaves, of wealth and extreme poverty. We live in a world of poor nations that supply forced labor to rich nations and their super-privileged royalty. Whether it happened or not, the story of slavery in Pebble Beach points to a horrifying truth.