By Rich Figel
Although the Aloun Farms case has been dismissed, it raised the issue of human trafficking in Hawaii, which has been largely overlooked. In part, that's because victims are working in jobs that are removed from the public eye. Immigrants are lured here (allegedly) to toil in fields, do low-paying service jobs in hotels/restaurants or the garment industry, and forced into prostitution... or are they?
Even the Aloun case divided the Laotian community here. The Alou brothers, who immigrated from Laos, had many friends and supporters that saw them as being a success story -- the epitome of the American Dream. Others believed they were exploiting Thai workers for personal profit. All I know is farming is a tough business, and this particular problem has been going on for decades in the U.S. When I was a rookie reporter way back in 1979, I did a story about migrant workers in rural North Jersey, where I saw the barracks-style housing they lived in. They were mostly Hispanic. The farmers said it came down to simple economics: if Americans want to eat cheap, the farm owners had no choice but to hire the cheapest labor they could find.
Trafficking happens in other lines of work, including the sex trade. Last week, I interviewed three former prostitutes as part of a public awareness project I'm involved with. I'll be producing video segments and Public Service Announcement spots about human trafficking, and resources available to victims -- or for people who know possible victims, and want to help them get out of those situations. It's challenging though because as one of the women told us, some prostitutes are doing it by choice. She admitted that she wasn't totally naive when she was brought to Hawaii on a "vacation trip" by her pimp. When she tried to leave him, he held her over a lanai railing 20-some floors above the ground, then beat her severely.
What's amazing is how resilient these women are. Each had terrible, sickening stories about the fear they lived in. It makes you angry and sad that anyone can be so cruel. It made me ashamed to be a man. Yet another former streetwalker said a lot of johns didn't want sex -- they just wanted to talk to her. That's sad too... there's so many lonely people out there, who want any kind of human connection they can get. Even if they have to pay for it. I honestly don't know what the answer is to dealing with prostitution. But if a woman wants to get out of the business, then the law and society should do all it can to protect her from pimps.
I'll be working with the Pacific Gateway Center, along with four other non-profits and Communications Pacific, which will be handling the print materials part of the public awareness campaign. We're talking to professionals who deal with trafficking victims on a daily basis. But if you know someone who survived such a situation and would like to share their story, please contact me. We will maintain their anonymity if they prefer and can alter their voices/image so no one will recognize them on the videos. Although we have access to videos and photos from the federal agency that is overseeing this project, we believe the most effective stories we can share are from local survivors who can tell what happened in their native language. This will truly be a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic effort we're putting together.
You can email leads to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or call me at 262-5073. All information will remain confidential. Also, if you have suggestions as to how to best raise awareness about trafficking and resources available to victims, please feel free to post them in the comments section below.