About 10 years ago, I went through a little bit of a hard time. So I decided to go see a therapist. I had been seeing her for a few months, when she looked at me one day and said, "Who actually raised you until you were three?" Seemed like a weird question. I said, "My parents." And she said, "I don't think that's actually the case; because if it were, we'd be dealing with things that are far more complicated than just this."
It sounded like the setup to a joke, but I knew she was serious. Because when I first started seeing her, I was trying to be the funniest person in the room. And I would try and crack these jokes, but she caught on to me really quickly, and whenever I tried to make a joke, she would look at me and say, "That is actually really sad." (Laughter) It's terrible.
So I knew I had to be serious, and I asked my parents who had actually raised me until I was three? And to my surprise, they said my primary caregiver had been a distant relative of the family. I had called her my auntie.
I remember my auntie so clearly, it felt like she had been part of my life when I was much older. I remember the thick, straight hair, and how it would come around me like a curtain when she bent to pick me up; her soft, southern Thai accent; the way I would cling to her, even if she just wanted to go to the bathroom or get something to eat. I loved her, but [with] the ferocity that a child has sometimes before she understands that love also requires letting go.
But my clearest and sharpest memory of my auntie, is also one of my first memories of life at all. I remember her being beaten and slapped by another member of my family. I remember screaming hysterically and wanting it to stop, as I did every single time it happened, for things as minor as wanting to go out with her friends, or being a little late. I became so hysterical over her treatment, that eventually, she was just beaten behind closed doors.
Things got so bad for her that eventually she ran away. As an adult, I learned later that she had been just 19 when she was brought over from Thailand to the States to care for me, on a tourist visa. She wound up working in Illinois for a time, before eventually returning to Thailand, which is where I ran into her again, at a political rally in Bangkok. I clung to her again, as I had when I was a child, and I let go, and then I promised that I would call. I never did, though. Because I was afraid if I said everything that she meant to me — that I owed perhaps the best parts of who I became to her care, and that the words "I'm sorry" were like a thimble to bail out all the guilt and shame and rage I felt over everything she had endured to care for me for as long as she had — I thought if I said those words to her, I would never stop crying again. Because she had saved me. And I had not saved her.
I'm a journalist, and I've been writing and researching human trafficking for the past eight years or so, and even so, I never put together this personal story with my professional life until pretty recently. I think this profound disconnect actually symbolizes most of our understanding about human trafficking. Because human trafficking is far more prevalent, complex and close to home than most of us realize.
I spent time in jails and brothels, interviewed hundreds of survivors and law enforcement, NGO workers. And when I think about what we've done about human trafficking, I am hugely disappointed. Partly because we don't even talk about the problem right at all. When I say "human trafficking," most of you probably don't think about someone like my auntie. You probably think about a young girl or woman, who's been brutally forced into prostitution by a violent pimp. That is real suffering, and that is a real story. That story makes me angry for far more than just the reality of that situation, though.
As a journalist, I really care about how we relate to each other through language, and the way we tell that story, with all the gory, violent detail, the salacious aspects — I call that "look at her scars" journalism. We use that story to convince ourselves that human trafficking is a bad man doing a bad thing to an innocent girl. That story lets us off the hook. It takes away all the societal context that we might be indicted for, for the structural inequality, or the poverty, or the barriers to migration. We let ourselves think that human trafficking is only about forced prostitution, when in reality, human trafficking is embedded in our everyday lives.
Let me show you what I mean. Forced prostitution accounts for 22 percent of human trafficking. Ten percent is in state- imposed forced labor. but a whopping 68 percent is for the purpose of creating the goods and delivering the services that most of us rely on every day, in sectors like agricultural work, domestic work and construction. That is food and care and shelter. And somehow, these most essential workers are also among the world's most underpaid and exploited today. Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel another person's labor. And it's found in cotton fields, and coltan mines, and even car washes in Norway and England. It's found in U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's found in Thailand's fishing industry. That country has become the largest exporter of shrimp in the world. But what are the circumstances behind all that cheap and plentiful shrimp? Thai military were caught selling Burmese and Cambodian migrants onto fishing boats. Those fishing boats were taken out, the men put to work, and they were thrown overboard if they made the mistake of falling sick, or trying to resist their treatment. Those fish were then used to feed shrimp, The shrimp were then sold to four major global retailers: Costco, Tesco, Walmart and Carrefour.
Human trafficking is found on a smaller scale than just that, and in places you would never even imagine. Traffickers have forced young people to drive ice cream trucks, or to sing in touring boys' choirs. Trafficking has even been found in a hair braiding salon in New Jersey.
The scheme in that case was incredible. The traffickers found young families who were from Ghana and Togo, and they told these families that "your daughters are going to get a fine education in the United States." They then located winners of the green card lottery, and they told them, "We'll help you out. We'll get you a plane ticket. We'll pay your fees. All you have to do is take this young girl with you, say that she's your sister or your spouse. Once everyone arrived in New Jersey, the young girls were taken away, and put to work for 14-hour days, seven days a week, for five years. They made their traffickers nearly four million dollars.
This is a huge problem. So what have we done about it? We've mostly turned to the criminal justice system. But keep in mind, most victims of human trafficking are poor and marginalized. They're migrants, people of color. Sometimes they're in the sex trade. And for populations like these, the criminal justice system is too often part of the problem, rather than the solution. In study after study, in countries ranging from Bangladesh to the United States, between 20 and 60 percent of the people in the sex trade who were surveyed said that they had been raped or assaulted by the police in the past year alone. People in prostitution, including people who have been trafficked into it, regularly receive multiple convictions for prostitution. Having that criminal record makes it so much more difficult to leave poverty, leave abuse, or leave prostitution, if that person so desires. Workers outside of the sex sector — if they try and resist their treatment, they risk deportation. In case after case I've studied, employers have no problem calling on law enforcement to try and threaten or deport their striking trafficked workers. If those workers run away, they risk becoming part of the great mass of undocumented workers who are also subject to the whims of law enforcement if they're caught.
Law enforcement is supposed to identify victims and prosecute traffickers. But out of an estimated 21 million victims of human trafficking in the world, they have helped and identified fewer than 50,000 people. That's like comparing the population of the world to the population of Los Angeles, proportionally speaking. As for convictions, out of an estimated 5,700 convictions in 2013, fewer than 500 were for labor trafficking. Keep in mind that labor trafficking accounts for 68 percent of all trafficking, but fewer than 10 percent of the convictions.
I've heard one expert say that trafficking happens where need meets greed. I'd like to add one more element to that. Trafficking happens in sectors where workers are excluded from protections, and denied the right to organize. Trafficking doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens in systematically degraded work environments. You might be thinking, oh, she's talking about failed states, or war-torn states, or — I'm actually talking about the United States. Let me tell you what that looks like.
I spent many months researching a trafficking case called Global Horizons, involving hundreds of Thai farm workers. They were sent all over the States, to work in Hawaii pineapple plantations, and Washington apple orchards, and anywhere the work was needed. They were promised three years of solid agricultural work. So they made a calculated risk. They sold their land, they sold their wives' jewelry, to make thousands in recruitment fees for this company, Global Horizons. But once they were brought over, their passports were confiscated. Some of the men were beaten and held at gunpoint. They worked so hard they fainted in the fields. This case hit me so hard.
After I came back home, I was wandering through the grocery store, and I froze in the produce department. I was remembering the over-the-top meals the Global Horizons survivors would make for me every time I showed up to interview them. They finished one meal with this plate of perfect, long-stemmed strawberries, and as they handed them to me, they said, "Aren't these the kind of strawberries you eat with somebody special in the States? And don't they taste so much better when you know the people whose hands picked them for you?"
As I stood in that grocery store weeks later, I realized I had no idea of who to thank for this plenty, and no idea of how they were being treated. So, like the journalist I am, I started digging into the agricultural sector. And I found there are too many fields, and too few labor inspectors. I found multiple layers of plausible deniability between grower and distributor and processor, and God knows who else. The Global Horizons survivors had been brought to the States on a temporary guest worker program. That guest worker program ties a person's legal status to his or her employer, and denies that worker the right to organize. Mind you, none of what I am describing about this agricultural sector or the guest worker program is actually human trafficking. It is merely what we find legally tolerable. And I would argue this is fertile ground for exploitation. And all of this had been hidden to me, before I had tried to understand it.
I wasn't the only person grappling with these issues. Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is one of the biggest anti-trafficking philanthropists in the world. And even he wound up accidentally investing nearly 10 million dollars in the pineapple plantation cited as having the worst working conditions in that Global Horizons case. When he found out, he and his wife were shocked and horrified, and they wound up writing an op-ed for a newspaper, saying that it was up to all of us to learn everything we can about the labor and supply chains of the products that we support. I totally agree.
What would happen if each one of us decided that we are no longer going to support companies if they don't eliminate exploitation from their labor and supply chains? If we demanded laws calling for the same? If all the CEOs out there decided that they were going to go through their businesses and say, "no more"? If we ended recruitment fees for migrant workers? If we decided that guest workers should have the right to organize without fear of retaliation? These would be decisions heard around the world. This isn't a matter of buying a fair-trade peach and calling it a day, buying a guilt-free zone with your money. That's not how it works. This is the decision to change a system that is broken, and that we have unwittingly but willingly allowed ourselves to profit from and benefit from for too long.
We often dwell on human trafficking survivors' victimization. But that is not my experience of them. Over all the years that I've been talking to them, they have taught me that we are more than our worst days. Each one of us is more than what we have lived through. Especially trafficking survivors. These people were the most resourceful and resilient and responsible in their communities. They were the people that you would take a gamble on. You'd say, I'm gong to sell my rings, because I have the chance to send you off to a better future. They were the emissaries of hope.
These survivors don't need saving. They need solidarity, because they're behind some of the most exciting social justice movements out there today. The nannies and housekeepers who marched with their families and their employers' families — their activism got us an international treaty on domestic workers' rights. The Nepali women who were trafficked into the sex trade — they came together, and they decided that they were going to make the world's first anti-trafficking organization actually headed and run by trafficking survivors themselves. These Indian shipyard workers were trafficked to do post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction. They were threatened with deportation, but they broke out of their work compound and they marched from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., to protest labor exploitation. They cofounded an organization called the National Guest Worker Alliance, and through this organization, they have wound up helping other workers bring to light exploitation and abuses in supply chains in Walmart and Hershey's factories. And although the Department of Justice declined to take their case, a team of civil rights lawyers won the first of a dozen civil suits this February, and got their clients 14 million dollars.
These survivors are fighting for people they don't even know yet, other workers, and for the possibility of a just world for all of us. This is our chance to do the same. This is our chance to make the decision that tells us who we are, as a people and as a society; that our prosperity is no longer prosperity, as long as it is pinned to other people's pain; that our lives are inextricably woven together; and that we have the power to make a different choice.
I was so reluctant to share my story of my auntie with you. Before I started this TED process and climbed up on this stage, I had told literally a handful of people about it, because, like many a journalist, I am far more interested in learning about your stories than sharing much, if anything, about my own. I also haven't done my journalistic due diligence on this. I haven't issued my mountains of document requests, and interviewed everyone and their mother, and I haven't found my auntie yet. I don't know her story of what happened, and of her life now. The story as I've told it to you is messy and unfinished. But I think it mirrors the messy and unfinished situation we're all in, when it comes to human trafficking. We are all implicated in this problem. But that means we are all also part of its solution. Figuring out how to build a more just world is our work to do, and our story to tell. So let us tell it the way we should have done, from the very beginning. Let us tell this story together.
Thank you so much.
Behind the everyday bargains we all love — the $10 manicure, the unlimited shrimp buffet — is a hidden world of forced labor to keep those prices at rock bottom. Noy Thrupkaew investigates human trafficking – which flourishes in the US and Europe, as well as developing countries – and shows us the human faces behind the exploited labor that feeds global consumers.
Noy Thrupkaew reports on human trafficking and the economics of exploitation through the lens of labor rights.
Noy Thrupkaew reports on human trafficking and the economics of exploitation through the lens of labor rights.