“On the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, there are more slaves today than any point in history,” E. Benjamin Skinner, a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, said at a cocktail party in Bridgehampton on Aug. 10.
“It is not the most lighthearted way to start a weekend in the Hamptons, but it is relevant,” said Oliver Niedermaier, who hosted the party with his wife, Constanze, to draw attention to the issue of slavery in the modern world.
Also that weekend, a six-minute ferry ride away on Shelter Island, Marie Eiffel, who designs and produces clothing for her boutiques in Sag Harbor and on Shelter Island, held a fund-raising event to raise awareness of the same topic, and money to help defeat it.
“Six hundred miles from the United States, you can bargain a human being down to the price of the cab fare to J.F.K. airport,” Mr. Skinner wrote in his book, “A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face With Modern Day Slavery.”
While human trafficking and forced labor continue in the United States and around the world, there is also a modern-day abolition movement — dependent on people like the Niedermaiers and Ms. Eiffel — that works to help those who are “forced to work under threat of violence, with extraordinary consequences to them and their family,” Mr. Skinner said.
“A Crime So Monstrous” details the journalist’s visits to 12 countries and his interviews with over 100 slaves, slave dealers, and survivors. Stories are told of slavery in New York City, where “hundreds of deaf and mute Mexicans were forced to peddle trinkets on the subway.” They were beaten or shocked with stun guns if they did not meet their daily quotas. The journalist also described children who are forced to work unpaid “from before dawn until deep night” and bore scars from beatings and burns inflicted by their captors.
“These are the children who won’t look at you in the eyes,” he said.
“Within 50 miles, or maybe within 5, there are people who continue to be enslaved,” said Luis CdeBaca, ambassador at large to the United States Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, who was also in attendance at the Niedermaiers’ party on Aug. 10.
Acting on tips, Mr. Skinner and Mr. CdeBaca are inspired to continue their efforts by those they have been able to rescue, such as a 12-year-old girl in Miami, liberated from the suburban Miami house of Willy and Marie Pompee, who acquired her from Haiti and brought her to the U.S. to clean their house. She was fed garbage, forced to sleep on the floor, and treated as a “la-pou-sa-a,” or “there-for-that” sex toy.
Despite the fact that it is illegal to hold slaves, 27 million people are enslaved worldwide, said Mr. CdeBaca. His department has been able to rescue some of them.
Among them was a young woman in New Jersey. Her parents thought she was attending school, but instead she was forced for three years to work braiding hair, spending six to eight hours at a stretch on each client. Finally one of them asked if she was okay. Now, that young woman is receiving the education she was promised. Mr. CdeBaca called upon journalists, citizen activists, and business owners to assist in the fight to end human trafficking.
According to the Department of State Web site, red flags that indicate someone may be working as forced labor include workers that live with their employer with multiple people in a cramped space and an inability to speak to others alone. If answers to questions appear to be scripted and rehearsed, this is another warning, as are signs of physical abuse or submissive or fearful behavior. The Web site also offers sample questions that might be posed to ascertain whether someone is being forced or coerced to work: “Can you leave your job if you want to?” “Where do you sleep and eat?” “Are you in debt to your employer?” and “Do you have your passport/identification?”
Through her shops and events like the one she held at her house on Aug. 11, Ms. Eiffel raises money for the Katie Ford Foundation, started by the former C.E.O. of Ford Models to fight human trafficking. Ms. Ford, who attended the Aug. 10 and Aug. 11 events, has received an award from the United Nations for her efforts.
In a telephone conversation last week, Ms. Eiffel said she had raised $42,000 so far for the foundation. The two women’s friendship began when Ms. Ford noticed a jewelry line at Ms. Eiffel’s shop whose profits supported anti-trafficking efforts. Now, the two are neighbors on Shelter Island.
At her shops, Ms. Eiffel donates 50 percent of profits from shirts, tied in a knot, to the Katie Ford Foundation. Originally, the knotted shirt was designed simply to untie and wear without ironing, but now it represents slaves tied to their employers by the threat of violence. The shirt sells well, she said, and when people realize what it is supporting, they usually want to help.
Ms. Eiffel also ensures that her own clothing is cruelty-free with regular trips to India, where she visits each factory where her designs are produced to be sure that workers are treated properly. “We’re not all lucky,” she said. “This can happen to any kid on the street, not only in India.”
“Change must take place,” Mr. Skinner said, and in some cases it has. After learning that some fishermen aboard foreign fishing boats had had their property seized and were being forced to work, often without pay, physically, verbally, and sexually abused, then hunted if they left, the prime minister of New Zealand banned foreign fishing vessels from his country’s waters.
With help from the Schuster Institute, the fish were tracked to restaurants, wholesalers, and retailers around the world, including Walmart, Costco, Safeway, and Whole Foods, who stopped selling the fish after they were made aware of the situation.
“It’s nice to have an effect on policy simply by revealing the truth,” Mr. Skinner said. The people who can make a difference, he said, are consumers, policy makers, and those who run businesses. Mr. Skinner said that he was partially inspired by President Bill Clinton, who “a week before the 2000 election, signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, “the first time an American president assumed global abolition as a national burden.”
“President George W. Bush continued the fight to win foreign government support for emancipation,” he said, and now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton champions the cause, with Mr. CdeBaca in the key role.
“People need to know that this could be happening in their backyard,” Mr. Skinner said. “Putting light on the problem will help; thinking it doesn’t happen will not.” There is a 24-hour hotline for reporting suspected human trafficking or forced labor, 888-3737-888, and a tip form is available at state.gov/j/tip.