Modern-Day Slavery: Alive and Thriving on the MS Gulf Coast

By: Ann Washburn
The allure is simple – Summer jobs and internships in the USA with mid-sized companies seeking bookkeepers, engineers, welders, and registered nurses. For college students and ambitious young foreign nationals, a single summer in the United States will net enough income to pay for their entire college education, or provide a comfortable life for their families for a year or more. It’s the dreamy opportunity that lures many into slavery and bondage every year around the globe… including on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

A few years ago, twenty four young and talented Filipinos responded to an advertisement put out by a local employment agency called ZDrive, Inc. The applicants were directed to an office in a residential area of Laguna, and given tests to assess their qualifications and skills for employment in the United States. The chosen applicants paid $6,000 each for a “job placement fee,” and they had to purchase their own one-way ticket to the United States.
Tired from travel, and unfamiliar with their environs, the young Filipinos waited several hours before they were picked up from the airport by an individual who claimed to be a representative of Aramark, a global hospitality industry staffing agency. “This is the first tactic used by human traffickers,” said one volunteer of the Gulf Coast-based organization called Advocates for Freedom (AFF). “They vmake these scared young people wait for them at the airport for hours. When the trafficker shows up, they are grateful to see them. They look like rescuers when they finally show up,” the volunteer said. The workers were told that the jobs that they came for were no longer available, and their passports and visas were taken from them.
Eleven of these young hopefuls were placed on a bus to South Mississippi. They were not told their destination. They were scared and suspicious, but unsure as to what to do. Some of the eleven were sent to Stone County where they bailed pine straw for less than $3 per hour. Others were sent to an upscale Biloxi hotel to work as maids for less than $4.75 per hour, and given quotas of cleaning 11 rooms per day. With so little money coming in, the loans their families took out for their placement fees began to default. Some parents took out second mortgages on their homes to pay the debt, not understanding why their adult children were not making the $1,200 per month they were promised, and not sending any money home. The workers were housed in small apartments with several others. Each had to pay $350 per month for rent and had to buy their food and personal items. At the end of every month they were there, they incurred more debt. There were trapped by their own honorable sense of responsibility in paying back their “employers.”
“Human traffickers use fraud, coercion and force,” said the AFF volunteer. “They paint a beautiful picture. You’ll have a great job, a chance to see America.” If the trafficking victim does not cooperate, they threaten their families or tell them their family is ashamed of them and they cannot return home. At some point, they are forced to do the biddings of their captors. They are often beaten, or kept locked in windowless rooms, chained to their beds, and pumped full of narcotics. They are forbidden to speak to any outsiders, and they are given stories to tell law enforcement if they are questioned for any reason.
Victims of trafficking come from every part of the world. Most come from depressed areas where opportunities for economic success are scarce, but many victims come from countries with plenty of opportunities, including the United States. Thousands of young Americans are lured every year by the prospect of becoming international models or film stars. Their fate is prostitution and pornography. At any given time, the US Department of Homeland Security estimates there are more than 300,000 American girls and boys sold into the sex slave trade or kept as slave laborers. The average age for a child victim is 13, but the children are getting younger every year, according to the latest numbers. “It’s supply and demand,” said the AFF volunteer. Human trafficking thrives in areas where the demand is highest and it is easy to traffic victims to and from the area. “We have all the right aspects for human trafficking to thrive [in South Mississippi],” the volunteer explained. “Military bases full of young men wanting sexual companionship, an international airport and sea port, the I-10 corridor and other navigable waterways. A victim can get dropped off shore on a barrier island to be raped, then the john comes back and acts like he’s been fishing all night.” The volunteer said other victims are taken to remote houses on stilts in the bayou areas, “to never be seen again.” Patrons of sex slave operations make their purchases through legitimate businesses, such as massage parlors, hotels, travel agencies and spas that may or may not be aware that they are participating in this multi-billion dollar industry, second only to drug trafficking. According to Homeland Security reports, the United States is the largest consumer in the world of modern-day slaves. Demand is high. The supply is endless, unless we stop it.
“And it’s not just sex trafficking. We’ve found many victims of labor trafficking,” the AFF volunteer said. “It could be the wait staff at your favorite restaurant, a landscaper, the nanny, the dry cleaners, farm and construction workers.” Victims of trafficking look like anybody else, on the surface. According to the National Human Trafficking resource Center, there are signs to look for to determine if a person is a victim: does it appear they are being controlled by someone? Do you see bruises or other signs of physical abuse? Is the person fearful of his or her employer? Does he or she seem afraid to talk to you?. There are also few questions you can ask someone: Are you being paid? Can you leave your job if you want to? Have you or your family been threatened? Has your identification or documentation been taken from you?
Advocates for Freedom is a faith-based organization dedicated to ending the exploitation, sale and enslavement of men, women and children. They provide resources, education and training to bring awareness about human trafficking. AFF’s spokesperson said, “We want to keep our ‘small town’ safety. We need to take human trafficking as a reality, and take control of our community. We are a tourism resort area, we offer lots of fun, but if we don’t make it safe, we will lose it.” AFF offers resources to victims of human trafficking. They help them find safe places to live, obtain proper paperwork, provide basic physical needs, mental health services and spiritual support as they recover.
For the community AFF provides several educational programs for school-aged children and teens to prevent them from becoming victims. They also offer training programs for local law enforcement and human services practitioners. “A lot of prostitutes get arrested, but police fail to notice they are actually victims of sex trafficking because they do not know what to look for. And a pimp is a trafficker,” said one advocate. “It’s about human dignity,” she said. “All people need to be free.”
As for the young Filipinos in this story, twenty of them successfully made it back home and sued their captors, thanks to the dedication of a Biloxi immigration attorney. Each victim was awarded approximately $100,000. In their country, this amount of money will sustain them and their families comfortably for several years. The emotional wounds are slow to heal, but many have been outspoken since their plight in an effort to educate other ambitious young men and women looking for opportunities in the land of plenty.
To get involved in the local efforts to stop human trafficking on the Mississipii Gulf Coast, visit the AFF website at http://www.advocatesforfreedom.org or email them at AFFstopHT@gmail.com.
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