POSTED ON MAY 14, 2008:
Of Human Bondage
Oklahoma lawmakers take new action on age-old problem
"Human trafficking is the slave trade of the 21st Century," state Rep. Marian Cooksey told UTW last week.
The Republican from Edmond authored a bill cracking down on that modern slave trade, which made it to the desk of Governor Brad Henry last week.
"This is an issue going across the United States. There are more than 10,000 (people) in the United States (who) are basically in slave labor," Cooksey said, citing a 2004 report by the Human Rights Center of the University of California, Berkeley, entitled "Hidden Slaves: Forced Labor in the United States."
"Most of them work in prostitution, domestic services and sweatshops," she added.
Also according the aforementioned report, Cooksey's estimate of 10,000 people is a conservative one.
"It is likely that the actual number is much higher, possibly into the tens of thousands," the report reads.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that Oklahoma was among California, New York and Texas for having the largest concentrations in the country of trafficking survivors receiving federal assistance.
The Tulsa-based John Pickle Company had a lot to do with putting Oklahoma on that particular map.
In September 2001, the oil industry parts manufacturer recruited about 50 workers from India with the promise of high-paying jobs. Upon arrival, however, their passports were demanded and they were forced to live in the factory, working between 12 and 16 hours a day, six days a week, for only a few dollars a day.
All of managed to escape by February the following year and proceeded to file a civil suit against the company.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also filed a separate civil action against the Pickle Co.
John Pickle and other company executives testified that the men were free to leave, and that they were paid so little because, according to a mutual agreement with the company, they were hired on as "trainees."
But, federal District Court Judge Claire Eagan saw things differently and ruled that JPC was responsible for subjecting the workers to fraud and deceit, sub-standard living conditions, false imprisonment, lockdowns with an armed guard, phone tapping, food rationing, restrictions on freedom to worship, degrading job assignments, ethnic slurs, intimidation and non-payment of wages earned.
She ordered the company to pay the workers $1.24 million, which the company has yet to do. As a result, the EEOC has petitioned for a lien on the company's assets.
The Tulsa manufacturing plant closed down in 2002, but has another operation in Kuwait.
According to the report from UC Berkeley, Indians aren't the only ethnic group lured to the U.S. under false pretenses and forced into slave labor.
There are at least 35 different countries from which slaves are trafficked through various means, whether by force or fraud. Chinese comprise the largest number of victims, followed by Mexicans and Vietnamese.
Almost half (46 percent) of those instances of forced labor discovered between 1998 and 2003 were forced into prostitution, 27 percent into domestic service, 10 percent into agriculture, 5 percent into sweatshops and factory work, and 4 percent into restaurant or hotel work.
And foreigners aren't the only victims of human trafficking in the U.S.
In 2004, national news broadcasts told of a child prostitution ring based out of Oklahoma City.
Investigations into a series of murders of truck stop prostitutes led to the discovery of a loose network of prostitution based out of Oklahoma City-area truck stops, which spanned the United States.
Federal charges were leveled against 19 people accused of transporting girls as young as 13 to cities in Texas, Florida, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Arkansas.
U.S. Attorney Robert McCampbell accused the alleged pimps of controlling young runaways through violence and intimidation, forcing them to engage in sex for money and to be trafficked across the country.
Based on assessments made with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Vancouver, Wash.-based group, Shared Hope International, reports that between 100,000 and 300,000 children in the U.S. are at risk for such exploitation at any given time.
Cooksey wasn't aware of the extent of the problem until a few years ago.
"What created my interest was, I had gone to a Women in Government meeting and that was one of the issues that was brought up," she told UTW.
"I really didn't think it had anything to do with Oklahoma, but when I came back and started doing research, I found that it did. We had several different cases in Oklahoma City," Cooksey said, noting the aforementioned scenarios, as well as a more recent case in which a routine traffic stop in Oklahoma City led to the discovery of slave labor being transported from Mexico to Canada along I-35.
"When I started looking into that, I realized we had a problem," she added.
After further research, she also found that there were no laws on the books in Oklahoma relating specifically to human trafficking.
Of course, some slave traders, such as the Oklahoma City truck stop pimps, could be charged with things like kidnapping and exploitation, but Cooksey noted that it's a bit more tricky to bring those kinds of charges against the likes of John Pickle.
"They really weren't kidnapped, because they came willingly, but they thought they were coming to get high-paying American jobs. It wasn't actually kidnapping. They just were lied to and forced into labor and were not free to leave," she explained.
House Bill 1021, if it's signed by the Governor, will establish the crime of "human trafficking" in Oklahoma statutes, defining it as when a person "recruits, harbors, transports or obtains a person through the use of force, fraud or coercion," either by threats of harm or legal action, confiscation of passports or other documents, or other means of intimidation or deception.
Anyone convicted of human trafficking will face at least five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000 for each conviction.
If the victim is younger than 14 years old, the sentence and fine are doubled.
The new law would also empower law enforcement authorities to seize traffickers' assets--including aircraft, vehicles and money--to offset the state's expenses in prosecuting them.
Tulsa's Republican Sen. Brian Crain sponsored the bill in the Senate, and Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, is a co-author.
It passed both the House and Senate unanimously, so the Governor is expected to sign it into law, if he hasn't already by the time this goes to print.
"This is just a start. There may be changes if we see that this is becoming a bigger and bigger problem, but this is just something that I wanted on the books to make people aware that we are watching and that we will do something," said Cooksey.
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