Human Trafficking: Slavery in 21st Century?

Gabbard, panelists speak out against labor and sexual “exploitation”

Editor-in-Chief Brian Wild
Photographer Elizabeth Lough

Tulsi Gabbard!

As dozens of students, faculty, and community members were packed together in UCB Room 100, Jane Panek of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) of Hawaiʻi took to the podium and opened the discussion.

Panek – whose son, Mark, is an English professor at UH Hilo – introduced Dr. Celia Bardwell-Jones , chair of UH Hilo’s gender and women’s studies department, Hawaiʻi County First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Dale Ross, and U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard in a panel discussion titled “Human Trafficking: A Global, National and Local Issue.”

Bardwell-Jones, in a nod to her experience teaching philosophy, posed a series of rhetorical questions aimed at addressing the topic of human trafficking, its causes and symptoms. The gravity of such a serious topic, however, prompted Bardwell-Jones to concede that by trying to answer the important questions, “you come away with more questions.”

Citing the U.N. Trafficking Protocol of 2000, Bardwell-Jones shed light on the complexity behind how human trafficking is viewed by different cultures and groups.

“There are three questions… one, is trafficking slavery?” Furthermore, “is trafficking more of a domestic issue, or a global one, or both?” Finally, “is trafficking linked to issues concerning gender or sex?”

Dr Celia Bardwell-Jones

The general consensus among the panel appeared to be “yes” to all of these questions. The scope of the issue was of particular concern to Bardwell-Jones, who noted that modern-day human trafficking was in no small part “brought on by the condition of globalization.”

Indeed, the plight of migrant laborers and sex workers is at the heart of the present-day trafficking crisis. Because of this, “borders are highly contested areas… and [policies prioritizing heightened border control] may support demonizing immigrants instead, due to the anti-migrant rhetoric,” Bardwell-Jones said.

“Women of color from destitute backgrounds are among the most vulnerable” to becoming victims of human trafficking, Bardwell-Jones continued. “At the root problem is exploitation,” especially regarding sex trafficking, she added.

In terms of how sex trafficking is addressed, there has been a growing divide over what philosophically is the most appropriate solution. “Sweden decriminalized sex work [for the workers], but not for those seeking it – the demand, the “johns,”” Bardwell-Jones explained. “But some argue that no matter how much consent is given, prostitution in any form is still a human rights violation,” she said.

Then there is the more pressing issue that “support is needed for “third world” countries, the “sending” countries where so many of [the trafficked persons] come from,” Bardwell-Jones said. In her line of work, perhaps the final key question remains: “Can policies reflect the importance of national security, versus personal security?”

Ross, the county deputy prosecutor, had a decidedly more local-oriented focus on addressing the human trafficking crisis. “Only a handful of cases have come our way, [but] many victims do not self-identify. They don’t necessarily come to us,” Ross said.

“We know of survivors from O‘ahu and Maui, and how they were recruited, like those in Waikīkī,” Ross continued.

In revealing the real-life consequences of local sex trafficking market, Ross asked the audience, “how many of you get unsolicited ads for sex on your phones?”

“It’s important to talk to survivors, to fully know what happens… much is done by travel. Girls travel in and leave. But more commonly, it can occur within the family structure, especially drug use. This includes cases I’ve been involved with, where girls will be forced to provide sexual services in lieu of money for drugs,” Ross said.

The final panelist to speak was Representative Gabbard, on account of her unexpectedly late arrival. When Gabbard entered the room, a noticeable shift in tone took place. It was clear that, for a number of the audience members, she had been the most anticipated guest.

After apologizing for her tardiness, Gabbard explained that she was eager to discuss “such a critically important, and heartbreaking topic.”

Having previously served in both county and state elected office before her election to Congress, Gabbard said “it’s good that the state and the feds are having this conversation… sex trafficking is not something that just happens in foreign countries, like in Asia or eastern Europe. It happens more often than we would like in our own backyard. How can we realize it’s not someone else’s problem?” Gabbard said.

For Gabbard, the issue is also personal: “My friend in the Army National Guard, her teen daughter went missing, and was a victim of sex trafficking,” Gabbard said.

As a result, Gabbard noted that she has helped spearhead legislation – the Trafficking Survivors Relief Act – intended to bring victims of human trafficking out of the shadows, and encourage enforcement of laws against their oppressors.

“The bill we introduced,” House Resolution (H.R.) 459, “allows nonviolent crimes committed by victims [i.e., prostitution, lack of documentation] to be removed from their records… There should not be an obstacle to prosecuting human traffickers, because victims are afraid of being deported.”

“If someone comes forward,” Gabbard continued, “the government should certify their status and not deport them… be given English training, and connect them with social service providers.”

When asked by Ke Kalahea if she had any comment on another piece of related legislation pending before the House – the Human Trafficking Prioritization Act, sponsored by Republican Chris Smith of New Jersey – Gabbard responded that she was not intimately familiar with the bill, and would need to do more research before taking a position.

In following up with her initial comment, Gabbard noted that “Chris is an advocate on combating human trafficking… any bill to tackle this issue is a no-brainer, and at this point it’s just about getting our own legislation at the top of the stack, the agenda, for the House.”

Shortly after taking a few more questions, the panelists had given their concluding thoughts and Gabbard exited the room; she was en route to a town hall meeting held a block away at Waiākea High School, which was slated to begin in less than 15 minutes.