Inalienable Rights: Ending Slavery in Massachusetts
By Samuel Tsoi
It’s happening closer than you think. Human beings are being exploited for profit every day across the world and in our midst. Individuals are being held against their will as sex workers, sweatshop laborers, field hands, restaurant workers, and even domestic maids, more than there were slaves in the 19th Century – somewhere between 12 to 27 million worldwide.
On January 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day will have a more potent meaning in Massachusetts. After years of being among a handful of states with no distinct criminal penalties for coerced sex or labor, a new state-level anti-human trafficking bill was signed into law at the end of 2011. It created a more intentional and apt set of laws in order to prosecute traffickers who enslave vulnerable individuals such as immigrants working obscene hours under debt bondage, violence at the hands of snakeheads or coyotes, and the constant threat of deportation. Unfortunately, there are also far too many young girls coerced, raped and forced into becoming lucrative commodities at the hands of ruthless pimps. Thankfully, the law includes a “safe harbor” provision that would allow minors arrested for soliciting sex to avoid prosecution if they were trafficked.
It is now up state officials, in partnership with federal authorities, and informed by a task force of advocates, social workers and survivors to make sure trafficking victims have the right conditions, incentives and safety (including immigration relief such as U- and T-visas) to participate in investigations, and most importantly, to recover from their hellish experiences.
A trust fund created by the law will provide victims access to services such as legal advice, counseling, medical care and language assistance. This is a welcomed scenario for short-handed service providers, and also presents an opportunity for more community stakeholders, such as churches, hospitals, workers centers to be prepared for addressing trafficking cases.
From being among a shameful few without anti-human trafficking laws, to enacting one of the most comprehensive statues, Massachusetts now has a strong toolset. However, today’s slavery, as with the transatlantic version, cannot be abolished without grassroots awareness and public participation. Frankly, for many of us, especially in a region with a shameful past in the slave trade that we shelved as a historical relic, the issue of human trafficking is both difficult to detect and easy to ignore. Instead, we can volunteer in shelters, demand funding for safe houses and humane working conditions, scrutinize the supply-chains of our favorite products, or simply talking about the issue in our communities. Conversation and awareness is crucial, especially among the immigrant community, where the levels of stigma and mistrust of authorities are high.
There are now no more excuses at the top, but the work of ending slavery in Massachusetts and around the world will require a cultural shift in how we see the most vulnerable in the our marketplace, media and neighborhoods.
Samuel Tsoi is the Policy Associate at the Mass. Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition