It's a buzz word: Human Trafficking.
If you haven't heard it lately, you will soon. There is so much good material out there on the subject that I'm a bit hesitant to attempt an addition. But I keep having this same experience, and it makes me wonder if you are too. And if you are, you probably have had some of the same questions that I have, or perhaps you have not yet recognized it for what it is.
You see we think of trafficking as being an overseas phenomenon, something we can remain fairly insulated from by avoiding Asian and Eastern European countries. Some of us are becoming aware of the estimated 200,000 men, women and children thought to be enslaved within our own borders, but even still, we think of them as being streetwalkers or household workers, etc...
We don't think of them as being door to door salespeople.
Since opening the Yobel Boutique in Old Colorado City 2 years ago, I've been more and more exposed to a new (to me) and ugly side of exploitation that I never saw coming.
The traditional story typically looks like a teenager who walks into the shop holding a very tattered laminate sheet detailing the cause they are supporting with sales of some kind. It could be chocolates, it could be cleaning products or jewelry. It could actually be legit, but upon asking some questions, I typically find that these kids are far from home, working in a team of adolescents, highly mobile, and under the direction of an unseen adult who promises rewards for higher sales. After a barrage of questions during which I look up their sponsoring organization online, the young adult generally begins to run out of canned answers and I find that their representing agency either doesn't exist or is part of a religious cult. The scenario usually draws to a close as I explain to the solicitor that they do not have to be doing this if they don't want to be; that I have resources that will help them to be free from their mobile sales crew if they'd like. I hand them my information and immediately call the Human Trafficking Hotline in Colorado Springs.
Last month, it happened twice in one week to a Yobel volunteer named Meg. Here is what she experienced in her own words:
"As my friend and I were walking through the King Soopers parking lot in Colorado Springs after a shopping trip one afternoon, we were approached by two young men. My guess is that these guys were no older than 19. Each were dressed in baggy clothes, white baseball caps and gold chains. They asked for a moment of our time and launched into a spiel that was nothing if not completely rehearsed.
Before I knew it, they had separated my friend and I, and were speeding through the same monologue. One of the first things that my solicitor asked (and I could hear him asking the same thing to my friend) was if I was single. He proceeded to flirt with me and crack jokes about being my boyfriend.
After a few pick-up lines (which I overheard the other guy parroting simultaneously) he pulled out some poorly printed and laminated pamphlets. The literature was cluttered with pictures of different magazines. He explained very rapidly that if I signed up for a magazine subscription that it would lend him a certain number of points, and if at the end of the day he could collect the right amount he would be able to go on a trip to Rome.
At this point I was sure that it was not only a scam but a possible case of trafficking. I interrupted him and asked why he was going to Rome. He said something to the effect of, "Wouldn't you if you had the chance? Wanna go with me?" Wink wink. I asked him who he was going with to which he responded, "This guy!" pointing to the other young man.
I then asked who he was working for. He told me that the organization was called "Green Team" and was based out of Wheatridge, Colorado. He told me that his crew traveled all over the country doing this, staying in different hotels.After looking up "Green Team" when I got home I found nothing but a cleaning company. The organization was made up.
Every question I asked him that was not in reference to signing up for a magazine subscription seemed to trip him up. It was as if a wall would temporarily come down and he became a real person. His voice and countenance would change as he spoke more slowly and less rehearsed. But in an instant he switched "on" again and was throwing out cheesy pick-up lines and a bunch of convoluted information that didn't add up.
When I told him that I didn't have the money to sign up he went in another direction, explaining how one donation (preferably cash) would still give him points and give me a good feeling because it would provide magazines to Children's hospitals and deployed men and women in the Military. When I said no to all of it, he and his buddy eventually left.
Less than a week later I was walking through the mall in Denver when I was approached by another young man around the same age as the guys in Colorado Springs. He began the exact same speech. The first thing he did was look at my ring finger (which this time had a ring on it) and said, "Will your husband be mad that I'm talking to you?" When I said that he would, thinking it may put him off, he continued to flirt with me and use the same come-on's I had heard less than a week before.
He told me that he was training to be a DJ and that his boss wanted him to go out and talk to as many outgoing girls as he could for "training". He then talked about earning points to go on a trip to the Bahama's and proceeded to pull out magazine pamphlets identical to those I had seen previously. I told him that I'd already been approached by some guys the week before in Colorado Springs, to which he responded, "Who? I probably know them." I re-stated that they were in Colorado Springs and he said that he still probably knew them because they all travel the country together.
I tried to ask him why the other guys were going to Rome and he was going to the Bahama's, what school he went to etc., but his answers didn't align. He was selling the same exact thing in the same way, but for a different cause.
Walking away the second time I knew that something needed to be done to expose this possible form of trafficking. It is my heart to bring attention to this injustice and help others become aware of what they're really being sold. I want our nation to have ears to hear the silent cries of those who are being mistreated in our own cities around this country."
The definition of human trafficking is: The illegal trade in human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor: a modern-day slave.
Do these magazine and candy crews fit the bill? I'm no FBI agent, but my gut says yes.
It is a situation where young adults and teenagers are working under poor labor conditions, far from home, separated from family and loved ones, constantly moving around the nation, required to attain a certain number of sales, often indebted to their "bosses," and typically physically, verbally and sometimes sexually abused on their crew. If they don't perform or choose to rebel against their situation, they can be left stranded without a penny to their name and no way of getting home, often addicted to drugs they were introduced to on their tour.
In doing a bit of research, I came across this site: MagCrew.com. I urge you to take a look at some of their True Stories to get a vivid picture of what these crew members experience on a daily basis. Although some crews are legitimate up-standing businesses and provide a good source of income to those who are employed by them, the vast majority sound like something I'd do anything to protect these kids from.
So what to do if you find yourself in a situation similar to Meg's?
1) Ask the solicitor questions, throw off their routine. You want to get as much information as you can from these kids.
- Where are you from?
- How long have you been doing this?
- What happens if you make all your sales today?
- What happens if you don't?
- What cities have you been to recently?
- Where do you think you'll go next?
- Do you like your crew?
- How about your boss?
- Where is your boss? Van? How are you getting around?
- Do you like this job?
- If you could be doing anything else to earn money, what would you want to be doing?
- How long do you plan to remain with this crew?
- Do your family or friends know where you are?
- What is your name?
- Would you leave if you could?
- How old are you?
2) If they open up to you (which they probably won't) ask their permission to write down some of their answers.
3) If they want out, their largest barrier is probably their fear of the crew bosses and the debt or illicit activities that are being held over their heads, as well as shame or fear of returning to their families. You can reassure them that the law will be on their side and that the debts they are threatened with violate labor laws and will not be enforced.
4) Keep a few copies of the Human Trafficking Hotline (either local or national) in your wallet or purse and hand out along with some change to make a phone call if they want out. They can also seek assistance from the local police which you can offer to help them with.
5) If you are convinced this is a situation that is exploitative, make mental note of as many details as possible, write them down immediately, and call the Human Trafficking Hotline yourself to make a report. This helps the area police and local networks track potential crime ring activity as well as track down runaways. One of the most difficult parts of bringing traffickers to justice is a lack of confirmed evidence. According to one New York Times article quoting Connie Knutti, a former investigator for the Illinois Department of Labor, “The local police can’t keep up because the crews leave the state before they get alerted and the feds don’t bother with them because they say it is a state’s issue." If enough similar incidents are reported it can help the authorities to track and locate criminals and recognize potential crime rings on a more national level.
The largest contributing factor to trafficking cases being successfully prosecuted within the United States is lay-reporting. Meaning You and I have the largest responsibility when it comes to seeing criminals held accountable for their abuses in this horrible crime. I hope that this will shed a little light on a prolific and yet rarely spoken about form of exploitation and that you will feel empowered to act if you encounter it in your neighborhood.