Human Trafficking: It’s Not Just About Sex

Ah, dressing rooms.  It’s the place where we all make our most daunting life choices: to buy or not to buy? What ultimately seems like a quick visit to the inner caverns of our favorite department stores actually morphs into a mini fiasco of multiple trial-ons, one-on-one staring contests with floor-length mirrors, and cost-benefit analyses of whether the outfit we’re yearning for is truly worth the price.

But how often do we go up to the cash register and ask questions like: “can you tell me if my shirt was made by a human trafficking victim?” or better yet, “does your store benefit from exploitative, forced labor?”  Come to think of it, when was the last time you decided to opt out of a purchase because of the retailer’s stance on international labor standards?

Today is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, a perfect opportunity to educate ourselves on what is one of the world’s most devastating abuses. What exactly is human trafficking? According to the Polaris Project, it is a form of modern-day slavery wherein people profit from the control and exploitation of others.  As defined under U.S. federal law, victims of human trafficking include children involved in the sex trade, adults age 18 or over who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts, and anyone forced into different services. Human trafficking is considered one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world, ensnaring more than 20 million men, women and children around the world. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates human trafficking generates over $32 billion in profits annually worldwide.

As a Bangladeshi-American growing up in New York City, I was fortunate to have a certain set of privileges.  I came home from school and watched cartoons.  Played with my dolls. Read novels. Went to the movies. Hung out with friends.  Though these pastimes seem second-nature to most of us, for Bangladeshi children and teens working in the garment and domestic industries abroad, it almost resembles a long lost dream.

According to the United States Department of Labor, children in Bangladesh are engaged in the worst forms of human trafficking, working within deplorable conditions within the agriculture and domestic industries. Children, mostly girls, work as domestic servants in private households in Bangladesh, where they work long hours and are subject to discrimination and harassment, in addition to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Bangladeshi children are also exploited in the commercial sex industry; some children are trafficked internally and others across borders for sexual exploitation.  But it doesn’t end there.  Children and adolescents are often trafficked internally for domestic services as well as forced and bonded labor.

But it’s not just children. Approximately 80% of the garment factory workers are women, who are usually anointed the responsibility for providing for their families. Under some of the worst conditions, workers in garment factories can make as little as $26 a month.

Bangladesh, which falls right behind China as the world’s second-largest garment exporter, was put under intense pressure to revoke their labor laws after the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse, one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. In the aftermath of the April 24, 2013 travesty, which claimed over 1,129 lives, Gap, Walmart and many other U.S.- based retail companies created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety in May 2013.  As a group of mostly U.S. retailers, they pledged more than $40 million towards Bangladeshi workers’ safety, as well as $100 million in low-cost loans to assist rebuilding factories.

Sounds awesome, right? Wrong. It was a cop out from signing the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety, a legally binding agreement between clothing brands, labor organizations and NGOs that would demand accountability and improvement in Bangladeshi labor standards.  By not signing the Accord, these companies are legally off the hook for any safety problems occurring in Bangladeshi facilities.

Other U.S. clothing makers urged the Senate to incorporate a provision in this year’s military spending bill that would have included a plan to improve labor standards in Bangladesh. The measure would have ultimately given preferential treatment to suppliers that signed the Accord. It had a very simple and clear-cut message: the U.S. government should not support sweatshop labor.  Though the provision survived a vote in the HOR in June 2013, it died in the Senate.  Very disappointing, considering that a labor rights amendment would normally stand better odds in a Democratic-majority governing body.

By not enforcing stronger provisions against Bangladeshi workers’ abuses, U.S. retailers are neglecting their duty to fight against human trafficking. Companies like Walmart and Gap (who recently placed an ad featuring Sikh actor and model Waris Ahluwalia at the front of their marketing campaign) are directly participating in a human rights scandal.  Sorry Gap, but changing your Twitter backdrop is not enough to cut it.  In order to affect real change, U.S. companies must back up labor laws that will bring justice to our laborers around the world.

On this National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, I stand with my Bangladeshi sisters and brothers back home, hoping to see justice come to light for all of humanity.

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