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The Hidden Faces Of Modern-Day Slavery


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Neal Conan is away. You've heard the story before of human sex trafficking as a form of modern slavery. It is real, and it is widespread, and it is not going away. But neither is a much broader category of industries known to use enslavement in order to make profits, and it's not just brothels, it can be a nail salon, a restaurant, a farm.

It can even be and has been that young person knocking on your door selling magazines. He's pleasant, he's clearly working, but he's also making no money, and he cannot escape that situation; he is a slave.

Law enforcement and state legislators are working on the problem. They have bills to strengthen penalties against traffickers on the move in West Virginia and in Florida, but it's actually so prevalent that they need other eyes and ears, like yours, to spot this happening, not that it's necessarily an easy thing to do. And who is so sure that they can actually recognize slavery of this type and then go and report it?

Well, we're going to start with the story of a woman who did just that in just a moment, but have you seen this in your community, and if so, what did you do? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in the program, Laura Vanderkam joins us. She wants you to know that you're not really quite as busy as you say you are. But first, we're joined by Sandy Shepherd. She is a resident of Colleyville, Texas, and she picked up the phone one day after she suspected something fishy in a very unlikely place: a boys' choir from Zambia performing in her community near Dallas. She joins us on the phone from her home in Colleyville, Texas. Sandy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SANDY SHEPHERD: Thank you very much.

DONVAN: So Sandy, a boys' choir performing, and you suspect something, something is very wrong there. What did you see?

SHEPHERD: Well, I was associated first of all with a choir that was from 1996 to 1998, and we recognized that the boys had been promised to be paid for their work, that their families were going to be getting money, that they were going to get an education and that the money that they earned was going to be building a school in their community in Zambia.

And what we realized was that none of this was happening, and they had not had any TB of HIV testing at that time, and one of the boys actually came down with active tuberculosis. And so we began to notify people and try to get help for these kids, even talking to the FBI.

DONVAN: And did people want to hear you on this? Were they hearing you on it?

SHEPHERD: They were listening, but even the FBI said, you know, they weren't shackled, they weren't chained. They were free to walk in the area out in the country where they were being housed while they were on tour. But we knew that they were being exploited and couldn't get anybody to believe that in 1996 through 1998.

DONVAN: Well, one of the young men who was in that choir, who actually with your help escaped that situation, and we'll get into that, but one of those young men is actually able to join us now. Given Kachepa is online with us where he is now actually in a life that has evolved dramatically for the better, in dental school. Given, welcome to the program.

GIVEN KACHEPA: Thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here.

DONVAN: Thanks, Given, and tell us, from your point of view, what Sandy just said she heard from law enforcement was that you could walk away. You could walk around. Well, could you walk away?

KACHEPA: Well, you know, it was kind of deceiving because it seems like on the outside like we had all the freedom, and we could do anything that we wanted to, but again, we were being threatened that if we tried to run away, then they're going to - and we get captured, then we would be sent back home to Zambia in disgrace.

And then so that was some of the things that we didn't want to have to do. And a lot of times we were shy to tell people about our situation because we'd been threatened, again with deportation, of going back to Zambia without anything. So they made it very, very challenging for us to speak out and tell people about our stories.

DONVAN: And what about the option of simply running away in the night? What would have happened if you had tried to do that?

KACHEPA: Well, we didn't have our passports. So it would have made it very difficult. You know, if you're going to run away, and you don't have all your paperwork, then how are you going to be able to establish a new life wherever it is that you are going? And the reason that we didn't have our paperwork was that our traffickers kept all of our paperwork, and that was their way of making sure that we didn't escape from the situation.

DONVAN: In your mind, did you see yourself as a slave? Did that word cross your mind?

KACHEPA: At the time no because I wasn't educated enough to know the difference between a slave and a non-slave. But as I've been removed from the situation, and I look back now, certainly there were things that happened that do constitute what a modern-day victim goes through. At the time, I was just (unintelligible) survive and try to do the best that I could in that situation.

DONVAN: Sandy, you said that you tried to contact law enforcement about this, and they saw the fact that the boys being held on this farm weren't chained, as you say. What did it take for them to hear from you that there was coercion here and confinement going on?

SHEPHERD: It actually was a chain of events where Keith Grimes(ph), who had been the initiator of the choir, actually passed away, and his daughter and son-in-law were continuing to carry on the, quote, ministry. And out of the threatening that they did, they actually contacted law enforcement and then contacted immigration to have some of the boys deported as a way of discipline.

DONVAN: In other words to teach them a lesson and scar them to not trying again.

SHEPHERD: Correct. That was in the year 2000. That was in January of 2000. And four of the boys had actually been taken away in April of 1999. And so when immigration was re-contacted in January of 2000, they went up to the location and took the rest of the choir away - there were seven boys remaining at that time - and called our church and asked if there could be somebody that could help house them because otherwise they'd have to put the boys in jail.

DONVAN: And you took in Given.

SHEPHERD: We - I took - all seven of them came here to begin with

DONVAN: All seven.

SHEPHERD: And after three months, everybody left and went to new homes, and then Given came back to visit in the summer, and his host mom was not able to keep him any longer, and so he stayed with us and began school in the eighth grade.

DONVAN: He was that young?

SHEPHERD: He was that young. He was 13 at the time.

DONVAN: Given, did you feel at that moment that you moved in with Sandy Shepherd and her family, did you feel safe, or did it take a while?

KACHEPA: I think it took a long time because we'd been used like that, you know, it takes a long time to begin to trust people and know that I can tell these people about my life and that they're going to be willing to help me so that I can have a better future and life for myself.

DONVAN: And Sandy, since part of what we're trying to do in this program is define or help redefine an understanding of what constitutes slavery today, I asked Given this question, did he see himself that way. Did you see these boys that way, or did you simply see them as in a jam, in a bad situation?

SHEPHERD: I saw them as being exploited, being used for the purpose of raising a lot of money and then not doing with the money what they had said they were going to do with the money, nor were the boys getting their education. Given's choir actually came in May of 1998, and then they were rescued and picked up in January of 2000. So it was very clear by the time I listened to their story compared to what the '96 to '98 choir went through, it was even more extreme for Given's choir.

They were searched, and they were told not to have any contact information on them. They weren't allowed to use the phones when they were at host homes.

DONVAN: So when did the word slavery begin to apply in your opinion, for you?

SHEPHERD: What do you think, Given? I mean, maybe 2001, 2002, we began to hear the term human trafficking. INS wasn't even that familiar in 2000 with the term human trafficking. So it evolved as more people became - and the reality was the Trafficking Victim Protection Act did not take place federally until the fall of 2000, and so it was not retroactive back to prosecute any of the people that were involved with the boys' choir.

DONVAN: Sandy, I just want to ask you one more thing. The fact that we're talking about a boys' choir, it just seems, number one, the most astounding form, astoundingly offensive form of exploitation because all of these boys are going to churches, dressed, not literally, as angels wearing robes and before a crucifix, and...

SHEPHERD: Very sadly from that, John, some of them that have been able to stay in the United States have reclaimed their lives and been able to go on, but a lot of those that were sent back to Zambia, their lives were ruined, and they've not been able to reclaim their lives, and they live in the poverty, and they've had, you know, other challenges in life with not being successful because of their experience here.

DONVAN: Well, I want to thank both of you for joining our program. Sandy Shepherd and Given Kachepa, where in this particular case, Sandy did the right thing, she did the very right thing and very hard thing and took him into your home for years and put him through school. And Given, it sounds as though things have really turned around for you. So congratulations to you, and we wish you the best.

SHEPHERD: Thank you.

KACHEPA: (Unintelligible).

DONVAN: Thanks, both of you, for joining us.

We're talking about the face of modern-day slavery and what it looks like, and we have a couple of minutes before our break, and I want to bring into the conversation now Bradley Myles, who is executive director and CEO of the Polaris Project, which is an organization that combats trafficking and modern-day slavery, and he joins us here in the studio, Studio 3A at NPR News.

And Bradley, this - as I just said to Sandy Shepherd, singing in the choir, it makes it almost impossible to see, I would think. Is that unusual that slavery appears in these guises, that it's not what you think of in the movies?

BRADLEY MYLES: I think that Given's case is quite remarkable, and I think that it helps to underscore that there isn't a single profile that we can look for. We need to keep our eyes open. We need to stay vigilant, and we need to realize that this can appear in almost any industry.

So whether or not - there's been a case of elder care workers in a nursing home. There's been a case of golf course groundskeepers in a fancy golf course. There have been cases in the fishing industry and nail salons and restaurants, all these different places where we need to stay vigilant.

And I think that in Given's case, a boys' choir, I haven't heard of another boys' choir since that case, but I wouldn't rule it out, and I think that the more you work in this issue, the more you realize that you stay vigilant for anywhere.

DONVAN: Our guest is Bradley Myles, executive director and CEO of the Polaris Project, and we want to hear from you on this issue of looking for it in your community. In fact, we'd like to hear from people who feel that they suspect that perhaps they have seen these situations of modern-day enslavement and to ask you what did you do about it.

And we want to ask Bradley: What do people do about it? Our number is 800-989-8255. Or send us an email at talk@npr.org. We'll be back in just a minute. I'm John Donvan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. It is illegal in the U.S. to traffic humans. Sex trafficking is perhaps the most well-known violation, but it is not the only one. Labor trafficking is a distinct category wherein traffickers coerce people to work against their will while harvesting crops, manning the line, cleaning homes, doing all sorts of undesirable jobs that pay little, at best.

These modern-day slaves are often made to believe that they have no other choices and that they can be arrested or deported if they do not comply, even if they have the legal right to work in the United States.

If you think you may have witnessed modern-day slavery, tell us: What did you do about it? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

My guest is Bradley Myles, he is executive director and CEO of the Polaris Project, which works to combat trafficking and modern-day slavery. And he's going to be talking with us about what kinds of - what we need to see, what we're looking for because we're talking about places where it's not obvious.

And I want to go now to one of our callers, who is apparently telling us that she has witnessed something like this. I believe Heidi(ph) is Grand Rapids, Michigan on Line 3. Heidi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

HEIDI: Hello?

DONVAN: Hi, you're on the air.

HEIDI: Hi there, yeah. A few years back, I worked for an agency which had a refugee foster care program, and one of the young men on my caseload, it was a Chinese boy around 17 or 18, and he worked for - worked in a Chinese restaurant, and he was told, basically, that he needed to work for as long as they told him to work, and if he stopped or called the authorities or what have you, his family was threatened in China.

They told him all it would take is one phone call, and we could do whatever we want with your family. So at the time, I - you know, and now I had no idea what to do. I mean, what can I do with that? You know, it would endanger this kid's family.

DONVAN: Let me ask Bradley Myles. What does she do?

MYLES: Well, I think one of the interesting things about this case is that you're not seeing the physical violence. You're not seeing something right in front of your face. You only can see it when you hear about the psychological threats and the psychological control.

But I think that in these cases, there's a whole national response that's being built that involves local service programs in cities all across the country, that involves national and local task forces all across the country. There's a national hotline that we operate.

We're trying to build a safety net so that people in Heidi's situation can access that safety net by calling the national hotline, and we can begin building a local response.

DONVAN: So she should call?

MYLES: I would encourage anyone to call. It's a 24-hour number, yes.

DONVAN: Here's the question I have that I think may make it difficult for people to call is it's a very, very, very serious accusation to make. And what if you're not sure that that's what's happening? And I'm not talking necessarily about anonymity and threats of retaliation, although that may be there, but just the danger that you're wrong when you place that phone call.

MYLES: I think that one of the things that I reassure folks is that: One, people can call in anonymously. Two, is that the calls are kept confidential. Three is that the people working these cases hold a very high bar of what constitutes trafficking because false positives or like you said a wrongful accusation are a very serious instance.

So there have been enough cases and enough instances - we've taken almost 50,000 calls - that...

DONVAN: Fifty thousand.

MYLES: Fifty thousand, and so the people working these cases are going to be very diligent and very specific, very nuanced in their analysis of what they're seeing, and I don't think that we're dealing with broad strokes, and we're not dealing with vague hunches.

There's going to be a level of corroboration that's going to happen that's going to make sure that that piece of evidence and that case is scrutinized from enough angles to ensure that there aren't those false positives.

DONVAN: So you're saying that people should take the view better safe than sorry: If you have a suspicion, you should...

MYLES: Err on the side of sharing that and trust that the people on the other end are going to respond without jumping the gun and without over-assuming things.

DONVAN: Heidi, what do you think of that answer? Does that tell you that if you saw it again, you would call?

HEIDI: Well, you know, I don't know what difference that call could make. These - from what I understood at the time, many kids, young teenagers who were smuggled on ships from China, and I understand, too, that it's somewhat rampant in our small town - excuse me, in our small town of Grand Rapids. I just don't know what - I would do it, I suppose, but I don't - I just don't know what could be possibly done.

How could this boy's, you know, family be, you know, warned or - I don't know. I would. I certainly would.

DONVAN: I'm going to let you go, but I want to let Bradley answer that question while you listen off the air. Heidi, thanks very, very much for your call.

MYLES: Some of the things that I'd say, I think what Heidi's expressing is a very valid, very human emotion of what's happening here and what can really be done. And can this be stopped? And how can the victims be assured safety? I think that there's a few things to understand.

One, the U.S. government has created a visa specifically for foreign national trafficking victims that are found here in America. It's called the T-visa, where there's actually immigration relief that if you're held in this country in a human trafficking or modern slavery situation, there is an immigration remedy. And so it's trying to address that fear of deportation or that fear of repercussion. That's one step that's there.

The second, there has been over the past 10 years an enormous amount of law enforcement training that's been done - judges, local police, district attorneys, federal, FBI and ICE. I've been put through an enormous amount of training to help build a better response.

There's also an NGO infrastructure that's being built, of local service providers, and there's local task forces and coalitions being built. So there's communities of practice being built.

DONVAN: Right, right, but you said that before. But I think what I want to try to get at is, you know, you're not a civilian in this world. You've got great eyes to see this. But the rest of us don't. And we were talking during the break about the fact that some of these organizations and - where a boy knocks on your door, selling magazines, that this kid is actually in an enslavement situation.

I've had those kids knock on my door. I haven't seen that. Now I'm going to look twice, but I'm not actually sure what I'm looking for. I'm not sure if that means most of these organizations are in this racket or not. So I must say I'm left a little bit unclear what to do and what to be looking for.

Should I be chatting with all of the busboys in a restaurant and all the migrant workers I meet on the side of a highway in the country? You know, what do you do with the knowledge that it's possible, as opposed to hitting you right between the eyes?

MYLES: I think that first, it's a matter of programs like this helping to spotlight the issue, to help give people that consciousness change. I think that if people - it's honing and developing that lens to look for it and understanding...

DONVAN: That's what I'm asking about. How do we - so what's our lens looking for?

MYLES: Well, I think the first thing is to understand what is the actual definition of human trafficking that we're talking about? And trafficking in laypersons' terms boils down to three categories. First, we're talking about children that are involved in the commercial sex trade who have some sort of pimp. So you're looking for kids under the age of 18 that are engaging in commercial sex.

The second thing that you're looking for is adults who are in the sex trade, who are there through some sort of force, violence, control, manipulation, lies, threats. And the third thing you're looking for is that labor trafficking category. It includes both adults and kids, and you're looking for some sort of third-party control. You're looking for those elements of control, whether or not they're force, fraud coercion.

So if you hear Given's case, where you're talking about the threats of deportation, the isolation, the passport confiscation, those are those elements of control that begin to speak to a human trafficking situation. If you heard Heidi's case recently, she's talking about the threats to family members and the isolation that that person faces.

DONVAN: So that's the writing on the wall in those cases.

MYLES: Right.

DONVAN: What about what we were talking about - I don't want to besmirch an entire industry. I really want to be careful about this. But we were talking about somebody knocking on your door selling magazines, and it's a young person. Is - should we be suspicious right away or not? And what's the racket there?

MYLES: Well, on the national hotline, we've received a significant number of calls about these magazine crew sales networks, and this isn't to say that every person knocking on your door might be in one of these situations, but people - something's triggering in their gut where they're saying something feels wrong here.

This person is dressed in not age-appropriate or weather-appropriate attire. They're - sometimes people are asking for help directly to the people that they knocked from the door from and saying I'm starving, I need help, I'm not being provided with food.

Sometimes people look desperate to make the sale because they feel that if they don't make the sale, there's going to be some sort of repercussion. We've seen cases where kids were abandoned by the crews, and they were told that there was going to be a pickup point at this corner at 5 P.M. And then the van was never there to pick them up, and they were just abandoned as homeless in a city. And so what we've begun to learn in these cases is that there are some instances of very exploitive magazine sales networks that are taking advantage of young adults, tricking them into these situations, taking them far away from home and then holding them, and you see these subtle forms of control beginning to creep in. And it's happening more than I think most people realize.

DONVAN: And also - I mean, just - it's just some staggering level of inhumanity among the people who are pocketing the money. I mean, at the end of this process, somebody has turned off the human gene...

MYLES: The empathy.

DONVAN: ...yeah - the empathy gene when you think of what they're putting all of these people through so they can - do you ever - have you ever confronted any of the actual traffickers and talked with them about where did you get to the point in life where you could do this to somebody?

MYLES: Sure. In the course of doing this work over the past 10 years, I have met some traffickers, specifically some mama-sans who are running these Korean brothels, where they're disguised as a legitimate massage parlor, but it's actually a brothel behind the scenes. And I have talked to some of these folks, and there is an incredibly amount of sadness. There's almost turning off that empathy. In some of the cases that we've met, those women were actually victimized, and they were trafficking victims themselves historically 40 or 50 years ago. And there's a level of kind of deadness in what they've experienced over the past 40 or 50 years and are now...

DONVAN: They've gone numb.

MYLES: ...gone numb and have gone over to the control side of the brothel.

DONVAN: We have an email from a listener that I'd like to share. As a volunteer working in the undocumented community, I saw a lot of exploitation that bordered on slavery. One case in particular, a family from Guatemala was sponsored by a nonprofit, so that their terminally ill son could get medical treatment. One of the board members took the parents as employees at her restaurant. She paid them occasionally but not much. She kept their passports.

They lost their legal status. She constantly warned them she was going to turn them in to immigration if they gave her any trouble. They had to stay in the U.S. or their son would die. When I became aware of their situation, I called the FBI. They got the info about the restaurant but nothing ever happened. They were finally freed from the situation when the lady died in a freak accident. She puts in parentheses: thank you karma. They are still here getting treatment for their son, but they live in constant fear of immigration since they still don't have their passports.

You know, that story, again, depicts a restaurant owner who got that numb thing coming over her, it sounds like. But this sounds like this family did the thing you want them to do.

MYLES: Exactly.


MYLES: And I think that we as an anti-trafficking field need to be building better responses that aren't waiting for those freak accidents to help people get out of those situations. We need to actually have a proactive safety net that's being built. So that when these things are happening - the threats, the passport confiscation, the lies, the manipulation, not paying someone what they're due - that there's a response to say this is modern slavery, and we've built an infrastructure that's gong to help that as a country.

DONVAN: We have another email from a listener who writes: There's a Chinese buffet at - she gives the address - and the staff seems miserable. I don't know if they are slaves, but there sure seems to be a problem. That's it. That's all she's saying. And my question is whether that's - that instinct she has - it almost sounds from what you were saying before that you want her to follow that instinct and, again, the owners of that place may be entirely innocent, but you think she should follow that instinct?

MYLES: I would say so, yes. And I would also let her know that when you answer enough calls on the national hotline and you take 50,000 calls, cases begin to fall into certain patterns. We've got a whole subset of calls about a certain Chinese buffet networks that are happening all around the country, and that she should know that there are hundreds of other people like her around the country who had that same instinct. People are calling about the magazine sales, knocking door to door.

People are calling about certain things in the sex trade when they see a violent pimp. People are calling about agricultural workers. It's not so hard to wrap your brain around the certain subsets that begin to happen. And when you take enough calls, you see those patterns emerge.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. We're discussing the modern face of slavery, and we've had quite a few - quite a bit of response from listeners via email. And one gentleman named Tim makes a very interesting point. He says everyone wants to abolish slavery, but many don't even know what human trafficking means. Human trafficking the term is too bland and innocuous sounding. It was likely made up by a bureaucrat, and it's an almost useless term, even worse it absolutely makes it easier to keep slavery going. What do you think?

MYLES: I think that he makes some astute points. And I think that what we are talking about here is modern slavery. And that the technical term that was used by the government is trafficking in persons. It used to be trafficking in drugs, trafficking in arms, trafficking in fill in the blank, and they filled in the word persons. But the word human trafficking itself has a number of challenges. Most people think that it connotes movement. And so when they say human trafficking, they think, well, where are they moved to? What borders do they cross? And they confuse it with smuggling, when we're really trying to focus not on the movement but on the exploitation, on the end result, on what the person was forced to do...

DONVAN: Once there.

MYLES: ...once there, whether or not in the commercial sex trade or some sort of labor. So I think that those of us in the field, we've began to use the term human trafficking and modern slavery almost interchangeably to get over some of those hurdles that that caller was talking about.

DONVAN: Bradley, we only have a minute or so left, and I just wanted to mention that there's an exhibit here in Washington, D.C., at Lincoln's Cottage literally where he - a few miles outside of town, where he spent the summers to get away from the heat. And it's where also he penned the Emancipation Proclamation. So there's an exhibit there now called "Can You Walk Away?" And there's a link to it on our website and to the Polaris Project of which you are CEO. I just wanted you tell me about that exhibit, how it got there, very briefly and in what do you want to accomplish with it.

MYLES: This is the 150th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation when he initially wrote it in 1862. So in honor of this 150th anniversary, the staff there at Lincoln's Cottage thought what are Lincoln's ideas and what is Lincoln's legacy and how do those ideas resonate in the modern day? And they began to realize that if there is this modern slavery issue, how can they use that place of such significance to feature the issue?

So they came up with the idea of a modern exhibit. They reached out to Polaris and invited us to partner with them on it, found an amazing design firm, called Howard & Revis, that worked on it. And all these people came together to build this great exhibit. And what it does is it features the issue. It ties what happened in the past to some of what's happening still going on today in these modern forms. It gives people concrete tools of what they can do when they learn about human trafficking. It gives them the national hotline number that they can call.

DONVAN: Which is?

MYLES: 1-888-373-7888.

DONVAN: All right...

MYLES: And it tries to build that movement.

DONVAN: Thank you very much for joining us. You're the executive director and CEO of the Polaris Project. Not a civilian in this world, you can tell us what our eyes needs to see in looking for modern slavery. Thanks very much for joining us. And again, a link to your - to that project is on our site. Go to npr.org and click TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan. You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.