150 years after Emancipation Proclamation; Too many people are still for sale

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That’s what I thought, until the day six years ago when I discovered my favorite restaurant had been the center of an international human trafficking ring. The owner had been smuggling woman and children from India to wash dishes, cook meals and perform other tasks. Many of them were sold into agricultural fields along central California. This story came out when a young woman, Chianti Pratipatta, died of a gas leak in an unventilated apartment owned by the proprietor of the restaurant. He had forced Chianti to work under the threat of reporting their illegal presence to the authorities.

Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery that keeps men, women, and children from having the same freedoms that many of us share on a daily basis. Through the promise of a good paying job or by physical force, traffickers prey on those who are most vulnerable and powerless. As a result, millions who are practically nameless to the world are then held in debt bondage, forced labor, or sexual exploitation. Many of these victims are displaced in a foreign country, making it harder for them to escape and harder for authorities to track.

Slavery is on the rise. As exploitation is highly profitable, the money it generates is a strong lure for those who keep it running. Grossing $32 billion a year, slavery is the fastest-growing criminal industry on the globe. These crimes don’t just happen in factories in China or in the cocoa plantations of Africa but in our own backyards, in big city restaurants and rural farmlands, and even in suburban beauty salons. Modern-day slavery is easily hidden and the victims are often invisible and unable to leave or call for help.

I have thought about Chianti and her family many times. Why was she trafficked in the first place? If not by sheer force, then were there contributing factors that made her susceptible to the false promises by her trafficker? Millions of men, women and children share in Chianti’s plight every day. But unless we can also address the real reasons people are vulnerable in the first place—economic desperation, public corruption and a weak rule of law—exploitation of the vulnerable will continue to grow.

Still, we face an immediate crisis where thousands of individuals in our own backyards need rescue and assistance right now. And there’s something we can do about it.

Last year, President Obama pledged to increase our nation’s anti-trafficking efforts — it was a proud moment for our country. President Obama should fulfill his pledge by working immediately with Congress to renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). Despite years of bi-partisan support, Congress allowed this critical law to expire in 2011, putting at risk one of our country’s strongest assets to support trafficking victims, put perpetrators behind bars, and model governmental action for the world.

Thanks to the programs made possible by this law, we made great strides for over a decade in tackling the immediate needs and everyday problems victims and justice officials face in fighting modern-day slavery. We saw how TVPA programs not only helped the exploited, but how they helped open our own eyes to the issue. Today, CEOs, award-winning actors, school kids and church congregations all over the country are talking about this issue and taking action. I can think of no more fitting way to honor the Emancipation Proclamation anniversary and National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month than to work together, Republicans and Democrats, Senate, House and President to renew the TVPA.

It is too late for Chianti, but there is still hope for others. The movement against modern-day slavery has been building, and now we face a great opportunity to convert awareness into action. Because no one should be for sale.

Batstone is co-founder and president of Not For Sale.