A report released last week by "Free the Slaves," a Washington based human rights organization, exposed cases of forced labor or "human-trafficking" as researchers call it, in more than 61 US cities including Falls Church and Alexandria. The report is a survey of every slavery case to appear in American news reports over the last five years. Researchers also surveyed social welfare agencies across the country to gain insight into America's underground slave trade. The organization uncovered more than 10,000 cases of forced labor nationwide, said Director of the Free the Slaves, Kevin Bailes, who is also author of "Disposable People: Slavery and The Global Economy."
"We estimate the scope of the problem is about three times that number," Bailes said in an interview.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are brought into the United States each year for the purpose of working as forced laborers. Most find themselves working on farms or in sweatshops. Others are forces into sexual slavery as prostitutes.
Yet the most common form of slavery in Northern Virginia and the D.C. Metro area is domestic servitude, according to Bailes and Laurel Fletcher, professor of law at UCLA Berkeley and co-author of the report.
In 1999, a Virginia telephone worker named Louis Etongwe, a native of Cameroon, discovered a case of slavery when a young Cameroonian woman showed up on his cousin's doorstep during Thanksgiving. According to the report, "Hidden Slaves," the girl had escaped from a domestic slavery ring. She told him later that several other women were being held in a nearby house, forced to carry out back-breaking chores for no pay. The owner of the home, she told him, had brought them to the United States with the promise of an education in exchange for work. When they arrived, however, they found his promises empty.
To keep them from escaping, her "boss" spun stories about the dangers of life on America's streets, telling them even police would likely rob and rape them if they left the house. He also used the threat of deportation, confiscating their passports and telling them he would expose them as illegal aliens to U.S. immigration authorities.
"That is one of the primary ways traffickers will keep a forced laborer from leaving," Fletcher said. "One of the real challenges to uncovering slavery is that laborers are too scared to go to the police. Many come from places where law enforcement is corrupt. Others fear deportation. There needs to be more protections and amnesty for slaves brought into this country."
Armed guards are also used to keep slaves at bay, according to Fletcher, in sweatshops like one uncovered in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 2000. In one case in the American Samoa, more than 500 sweatshop workers, many Vietnamese, were kept from leaving at the point of automatic weapons.
According to Bailes, most slaves in United States are smuggled across its borders from China, Mexico and Vietnam. The amount of time spent in servitude can range from as little as five months in some cases to several years. Organized criminal endeavors, such as the operations of the "Coyotes" in Mexico and the "Snakeheads" in China are known to deal in human beings but Bailes said most human-trafficking comes from small, often family run groups.
"A lot of it is mom-and-pop arrangements," he said.
Because U.S. labor laws fail to protect domestic service workers in the same way it does for people in other sectors of labor, Bailes said exploiting and enslaving immigrants for such work is relatively easy.
"There isn't anyone to monitor the conditions of a domestic worker," he said. "The work is done inside somebody's house. You might even see a slave and not be able to distinguish them from your average, paid housekeeper."
Bailes added "It's estimated that there are 16,000 murders in the U.S. each year but the slavery cases we know of reach between 10,000 and 17,000 each year. Now, every police department in this country has a homicide unit. How many do you think have a slavery unit?"
In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, officially recognizing the crime of forced labor in the United States and providing social service groups the ability to protect victims from deportation in a limited sense.
None of the cases listed in the report occurred in Arlington County and according to Arlington Police Department Spokesman Matt Martin, the APD has no current programs or on-going investigations focused on forced labor. Yet Bailes contends the problem is a national one and it is only a matter of time before more slaves are uncovered.
"If there is prostitution in Arlington, for example, you can bet some of the women working in those rings are not there by their own accord," Bailes said.
He added more police departments need to train officers on how to look for the signs of forced labor.
"In the 1960s, America woke up to the crime of child abuse in homes," he said. "In the 1970's it realized the crime of domestic violence was an issue. Now we need to wake up to slavery. Forced labor is everywhere. Many times people see it and they don't even know that the person they're looking at is a slave."