A teenage girl approaches the truck’s cabin. The rest area is dimly lit, but the driver can still see the purple encircling her eye. When he asks if she needs help, she glances behind her and shakes her head. The driver watches her hurry away to the next truck. He grabs his phone and dials the Human Trafficking Hotline.
This girl was only 14 years old when she left her home country. Her parents struggled to pay for schooling, and they welcomed the opportunity for her newfound freedom. But when she reached the United States, she found herself physically and psychologically abused by her new “family” and forced into sex work. She was never enrolled in school, never even allowed to use the phone. Her passport was confiscated, and she lived this life for years until a transportation worker noticed the red flags and found a way to empower her with the resources to escape.
On trains, buses and planes in California, around the United States and globally, human beings are being trafficked and forced into slave-like conditions in plain sight.
January was Human Trafficking Awareness Month, presenting a renewed opportunity to spread awareness of the transportation industry’s critical role in combatting this abhorrent crime.
Human trafficking is the recruitment, transport or transfer of persons using force, fraud or coercion to exploit them for acts of labor or sex. This form of modern slavery is the fastest-growing organized crime with billions of dollars in annual profits.
At any given time worldwide, there are estimated to be as many as 24.9 million individuals held against their will and trafficked into forced labor and prostitution. Tragically, one in four of these victims of modern slavery are children. And here in the United States, California consistently has the highest human trafficking rates, with 1,334 cases reported in 2020 and 1,507 cases reported in 2019.
Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, almost every form of human trafficking intersects with public transportation at some point. These crimes often go unnoticed by busy people on equally busy trains and buses, unaware of the issue and of how to spot the red flags. However, because traffickers often rely on the transportation system to recruit, move or transfer victims, this industry has a unique opportunity and responsibility to fight back.
Communities within the transportation industry have rallied into complex non-government organizations determined to abolish human trafficking by working on the ground level. Most notably, the group known as Truckers against Trafficking (TAT), which was recognized with the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons in 2019, is “raising up a mobile army of transportation professionals to assist law enforcement in the recognition and reporting of human trafficking, in order to aid in the recovery of victims and the arrest of their perpetrators.”
TAT partners with the American Trucking Association, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the Truckload Carriers Association and other trucking associations from all 50 states to raise awareness and build coalitions with law enforcement to reduce trafficking.
In December 2021, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation to reaffirm the nation’s commitment to end human trafficking worldwide. He emphasized the necessity for an intersectional approach in efforts, explaining that “since human trafficking disproportionately impacts racial and ethnic minorities, women and girls, LGBTQI+ individuals, vulnerable migrants and other historically marginalized and underserved communities, our mission to combat human trafficking must always be connected to our broader efforts to advance equity and justice across our society.”
One 2014 study showed the movement of trafficking victims most often originated in Latin America (31%), Southeastern Asia (26%) and Southern Asia (13%). These victims face force, fraud and coercion, including “document fraud and withholding, extortion, sexual abuse, discrimination, psychological manipulation, torture, attempted murder, and violence and threats against family members,” according to the nonprofit research organization The Urban Institute.
Unfortunately, human trafficking is still rampant, and the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles may prove another challenge in California. Statistics from previous large-scale sporting events show a dramatic increase in sexual exploitation.
For example, data shows a 30% increase in human trafficking associated with the 2006 World Cup in Germany and a 40% increase at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. There were also reported cases of forced labor surrounding previous Olympic games, such as when thousands of construction workers at the Olympic Village in Rio refused to work until their demands of better living conditions and fair wages were met.
In the Bay Area, a Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office sting for Superbowl 50 ended in dozens of arrests and citations as part of a national human trafficking crackdown. Transportation agencies and Olympic partners in California must begin planning now to prevent similar injustices.
Human trafficking can occur at any time and in any place in our state and around the world. As individuals and as an industry, we must take action to protect our fellow human beings. The transportation industry is proud to be a partner in the fight against human trafficking and continues to look for opportunities to bring awareness, training and eventually an end to this form of slavery both nationally and globally.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) is a free resource available 24/7 in more than 200 languages. Call to report a tip or ask for help.
San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.