Nguyen warns of growth in labor trafficking

Published: April 5th, 2010

Category: Events, News

They were forced to work up to 14 hour days for meager wages. They were threatened and beaten; they could not leave. Ancient abolished slavery? No. Present day.

In 2007-2008, 261 Vietnamese workers were sent to Jordan to work for W&D Apparel. W&D confiscated their passports and injured one woman so badly that she later died from her injuries. The W&D case is just one example of the growing worldwide human trafficking problem.

“When you talk about trafficking, this is modern day slavery; it’s slavery,” said Thang Nguyen, the executive director of Boat People S.O.S., a national Vietnamese-American community-based organization that helps Vietnamese people. “We thought that we had abolished slavery many years ago, but no, it’s on the rise now.”

Nguyen spoke at UF Law on Tuesday about the W&D case and the growth of human trafficking. UF Law Professors Berta Hernandez and Winston Nagan also spoke after Nguyen.

W&D once provided uniforms for Aramark, which provides the food services for UF and is the largest company on college campuses in the country. The UF student senate pressured Aramark to stop working with W&D, and eventually Aramark ended ties with the apparel company.

Nguyen said there are 12.3 million people in forced labor worldwide and 1.39 million in sexual servitude. To be considered human trafficking, an act requires three elements, Nguyen said.

“One: there must be a victim. People who are smuggled are not necessarily victims of trafficking if they intentionally agree to that,” he said. “Non-voluntary participation and inability to escape – they cannot escape, just like in the case in Jordan. They got beaten up, locked up and forced back to work for the traffickers by their own government.”

In Vietnam, exporting labor has become commonplace. Since 2001, over 700,000 workers have been exported to 30 countries, although many of them were not trafficked. Each year, another 80,000 people leave Vietnam for work.

“Vietnam doesn’t have a law against trafficking, so there’s no way to prosecute the traffickers and there’s no way for anyone to help the trafficking victims because we cannot have access to victims of labor trafficking for two reasons,” Nguyen said. “One – there’s no law, two – the government is involved in trafficking.”

In 2000, the U.S. passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Under it, the Department of Justice went after Kil Soo Lee, the owner of Daewoosa in American Samoa that had trafficked over 200 Vietnamese and Chinese workers. This was the largest human trafficking case prosecuted by the Department of Justice. Lee is serving a 40 year sentence in Honolulu. The High Court of American Samoa ruled that Vietnam must pay the victims $3.5 million in compensation, but the country still hasn’t paid anything nine years later.

Over half of the countries in the world have enacted human trafficking laws, but enforcing them remains a problem.

“Why? Because labor trafficking involves governments, government officials, big corporations, organized crime syndicates and traffickers,” Nguyen said. “Anyone involved in any step in this process would be considered a trafficker – either recruitment, transportation, transferring, harboring or receiving the victims.”

Also, the attention on sex trafficking takes much of the attention away from labor trafficking. Even though 10 times more people are captive in labor trafficking than sex trafficking, sex trafficking cases are prosecuted 10 times more commonly, Nguyen said.

“It’s a tough problem to deal with. There are so many influential factors that we have to confront and people don’t want to confront them,” Nguyen said. “That’s why there’s a bias toward working on sex trafficking. It’s more compelling and easier because government is usually not involved in sex trafficking and they are involved in labor trafficking.”