The Indian community, in India and overseas, continues to reel from the horrific gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh Pandey in New Delhi last December. Much has been said about the patriarchy and misogyny that enabled this monstrous crime. But just as startling is the revelation by the victim’s friend Awindra Pandey that passersby did not assist either of them. The aftermath of their victimization was plain to see and yet bystanders did not lend a hand.

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Human trafficking, another critical human rights issue, often more difficult to see than sexual assault, exists before our very eyes, yet we are blind to it. As I contemplate those Delhi passersby, I wonder if our community understands the cost of standing by and doing nothing?

In 1994, I recall walking down Berkeley’s Durant Avenue from campus on a cold winter day and seeing a woman in a sari and chappals, navigating rain puddles without even a sweater. Even amid Berkeley’s socio-economically diverse population the sari-clad woman, barely sheltered from the elements, stood out on U.C. Berkeley’s campus, a neighborhood occupied primarily by students wearing backpacks, bundled in warm clothes. I wondered: What brings her to Southside? Where does she work?

The Reddy Rule

In 2000, the arrest of Lakireddy Bali Reddy sadly answered those questions. Reddy had brought men, women, and children from his village in Andhra Pradesh to work at his popular Pasand restaurants and maintain his numerous apartments in Berkeley. The Los Angeles Times reported that Reddy employed these immigrants, “using the young girls among them as his concubines.” But even more disappointing, Reddy’s appalling acts were generally dismissed as an outlier, a single extreme case rather than the wake up call that should have rallied our Bay Area Indian community against human trafficking, something that affects our brethren, working both skilled and unskilled jobs.

Of Human Bondage

In India, human trafficking fails to raise an eyebrow. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 11.7 million enslaved in the Asia-Pacific region, compromising well over half of the estimated 20.9 million enslaved worldwide. These nearly 21 million slaves are men, women, boys, and girls compelled into service: either commercial sex or labor. Modern slavery is on display every day in India: children forced to beg, young girls recruited into brothels, and men in debt bondage toiling away in agricultural fields.

Meanwhile, human trafficking of migrant workers from India and other South Asian countries remains unaddressed in the Gulf States. Local newspapers in the Gulf States are peppered with casual stories of South Asian domestic workers running away or committing suicide, with little explanation of the workers’ motivation. Indian and other South Asian construction workers are reportedly locked into contracts under horrendous work conditions, unable to return home. But these human rights atrocities against South Asians seem so far away and instead of spurring us to action, inadvertently create a sense of helplessness.

Domestic Slavery

There is a woman I’ll call Malini. A New Delhi recruiter sent Malini to a Bay Area family as a domestic worker. She was not allowed to leave the house or reveal her true identity. Her employers prevented her from speaking with her family back home and held on to her passport—she was trapped. Malini’s trafficker was Indian and active in the Indian community, confirming something difficult to acknowledge—Indians can be trafficked but they can also be traffickers.

Never has that been so evident than in the case of Varsha and Mahender Sabhani, Indian immigrants from Long Island, New York, who were convicted of trafficking two Indonesian women as domestic workers, forcing them to eat hot peppers and their own vomit, and hitting them with rolling pins.

In Other Industries, Too

Indian workers have been trafficked in other industries in the United States as well. In 2006, a federal court found that the John Pickle Company recruited workers from India, misrepresenting their work conditions and holding their passports, compelling them to work in an oil industry parts manufacturing plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There are also lawsuits pending against Signal International, alleging that nearly 500 workers from India were trafficked to work in shipyards operated by the marine industry company.

The Indicators

When the Reddy case broke, the concept of human trafficking was unfamiliar. Though, even today, human trafficking remains a hidden evil in our community. The U.S. State Department estimates that only 42,000 of those enslaved were identified and protected last year—less than 1% of those enslaved. Human trafficking persists because trafficked people are unfamiliar with the concept and related rights and protections. They often distrust the very law enforcement meant to protect them. Human trafficking identification and protection will only increase if those outside law enforcement are aware of basic human trafficking indicators and referrals. Any one of us could be the one person to encounter a trafficked person and inform them of their rights and protections, if only we stop acting like bystanders.

Understanding human trafficking and its indicators requires us to move past the salacious headlines that conflate sex trafficking and human trafficking. The ILO reports that human trafficking is comprised of 22% sex trafficking and 78% labor trafficking and state-imposed forced labor. And while sex trafficking is truly abhorrent, labor trafficking in the United States typically affects migrants or immigrants more than sex trafficking.

Looking at human trafficking through a sex trafficking prism prevents us from recognizing labor trafficking in our very neighborhoods. We overlook our complicity in purchasing slavery-tainted goods. Your shirt might have been sewn in Tamil Nadu, necktie made from Karnataka silks, or carpets from Rajasthan—all using slave labor. Being informed consumers will only improve corporate behavior to address slavery in supply chains. And, the Indian community’s leadership in Silicon Valley industries local industries can drive proactive efforts rather than lukewarm responses to legal compliance requirements.

In the twelve years since Berkeley police arrested Reddy, anti-trafficking laws and infrastructure have grown exponentially. Awareness has taken hold and mainstream communities have begun to supporti anti-trafficking efforts. The Indian community is rising to the highest levels of private and public sector leadership, including California Attorney General Kamala Harris who has made human trafficking a priority.

Isn’t now the time to make sure we are not bystanders in addressing the human rights issue of our time?

Kavitha Sreeharsha is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Global Freedom Center (www.globalfreedomcenter.org), which strengthens efforts to identify and prevent human trafficking through tailored training and technical assistance to a range of professional sectors. 

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