We don’t have to turn a blind eye to human trafficking, exploitation

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—We like to think we live in a state where we care about each other, that we’re moral and upstanding. We talk a lot about living with aloha. Now the trial of the Sou brothers, which will have its first full week this week, brings the tragedy of human trafficking in Hawaii squarely into our consciousness. 

“Traditionally people have thought of human trafficking as a form of slavery,”  says attorney Melissa Vincenty, ”Our ideas of slavery go back hundreds and hundreds of years and our opinions are formed on that.”

But, Vincenty explains, human trafficking encompasses more than just the element of forced labor. It has its roots in exploiting the dreams of lower class people to better themselves and their families. And that makes them ripe and vulnerable for traffickers.

“Not only will they do just about anything,” Vincenty says, “but they will put themselves in positions that will cause later problems because they trust people to do the right thing once they [immigrants] are here.”

Along with co-counsel, Clare Hanusz, Vincenty is currently representing over 100 victims of human trafficking and their families in the Aloun Farms and Global Horizons cases.

Vincenty says many of us in Hawaii delude ourselves into complacency: “The modern age has allowed many of us to put up blinders.”

We believe that since our technology allows us to virtually cross borders, she explains, we must certainly have access to more information about what is actually happening around the world, including the status of labor trafficking into our own state. 

“It’s happening now more than it has ever happened because going across borders is much easier now,  transporting people back and forth,” Vincenty says. “Getting on an airplane and coming to Hawaii is easier than having had to get on a ship. We do have this myth that things have died down in terms of trafficking, but the situation has grown alarmingly worse over the past couple of years especially.” 

Vincenty says large movements of people can happen far more anonymously than ever before. Technology has benefited the recruiters and businesses who would exploit workers of whatever type. Exploitation is far from new.

Exploitation is far from new.

In combating the sex trade, Kathryn Xian has seen progress in the fact that the understanding of human trafficking continues to increase—she no longer gets questions confusing the “trafficking” issue with people in cars, which she says was frequently the case as recently as 2000. Xian, who heads the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, GirlFest Hawaii, and who is a 2010 Weinberg Fellow, says she is grateful that the trial of the Sou brothers is spotlighting human trafficking of all types, including prostituted persons—a term she prefers to “prostitutes.”

“There’s a lot of discussion and a lot of care coming from the community now that they’re hearing more about it and that’s because of the Aloun Farms and the Global Horizons cases,” Xian says. “Without that kind of care, on a microcosmic level you wouldn’t have these globally stellar cases.”

And global they are, judging by those who are watching. The Aloun and Global cases have been picked up by international news sources including the New York Times and Al Jazeera. Regardless of what happens in each of the cases, and the volume of them at a time when Hawaii least needs bad press, there are still eyes looking to catch the Aloha State in potential hypocrisy. Vincenty and Xian take that as a hopeful sign that change is on the way, albeit slowly.

“There was a paradigm of, well, if the system ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but the system doesn’t recognize what a victim looks like or is,” Xian says. “The old definitions aren’t proper. You can’t just see these people as illegal aliens or prostitutes, you’ve got to see them as something more.”

Traditional definitions surrounding prostitution, immigration, or human smuggling don’t apply. And that’s what Xian says her organization and others have fought so hard clarify in human trafficking statutes and on the law books. It’s also why education about trafficking must begin at an early age—in middle school. The average age of entry into prostitution is 13.

“If we’re not talking to kids about what a healthy relationship looks like, preventing sex trafficking, preventing enticement into prostitution, then we’re just leaving them susceptible to the pimps out in the malls and the streets and wherever there are kids,” Xian says. “They [pimps] talk to the kids about this stuff.”

Regardless of the cases’ outcomes, there are several action items we can each take to disarm the predators: Talk to our kids early and often. And don’t let fears of making them paranoid inhibit us—it may be preferable that a little paranoia dulls an innocence that someone else may utterly shatter. Kids need to know who they can truly trust, and how to have a very healthy skepticism about everyone else; even in our culture that purports to treat everyone as extended family.

As for someone else’s kids on the streets right now, if you can give your time and/or money, Xian says her organization and others who work to get kids clean and to safety need plenty of both.

This is not Victorian England. We don’t have to turn a blind eye toward exploitation masked by a veneer of propriety to marginalize those most vulnerable. To start, we can get a little ugly and ask each other tough, uncomfortable questions, like why we teach our kids that slavery is wrong and abolished 150 years ago, but can still exist as indentured servitude in 2011 either in the sex trade or on the farm.

And we can ask pointed, impertinent questions of vendors at farmers markets, warehouse stores, and supermarkets: Where did this come from, what farm grew it?

And then we have to do something more if the answers aren’t satisfactory: Be willing to walk away and advocate with our wallets. 

The entire conversation with Kathryn Xian and Melissa Vincenty is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org.