Slavery is Still Alive in Washington State

Can a tech-savvy state find a tech-savvy solution to human trafficking?

Like a lot of current and former tech industry workers, Robert Beiser sees ways tech can change the world. In his case, it’s the elimination of human trafficking in Washington and, eventually, the world.

Beiser is the executive director of Seattle Against Slavery, a nonprofit that’s carried out numerous strategies to combat forced labor of all varieties. A former Microsoft operations analyst, Beiser sees times changing against the trafficking economy, and tech solutions, like Seattle Against Slavery’s Freedom Signal suite of applications, could help speed up the clock.

“Now, to think about groups of six- or seven-year-olds out in your field harvesting your crops seems totally ridiculous — whereas a hundred years ago, that was totally acceptable,” Beiser says. “My hope is that like many other issues that used to be acceptable in the past, like racial exploitation or exploitation of small children for jobs, this will be a thing that in fifty or a hundred years will be a relic of a time when people just weren’t thoughtful or responsible.”

Beiser outlines the current state of trafficking, and both old and new methods of combating it, in his Speakers Bureau talk “Modern Slavery: Understanding Human Trafficking in the 21st Century.” For instance, Seattle Against Slavery uses targeted advertising, reaching out to potential customers of sexual trafficking victims through the very same search engines the customers use to arrange such commerce.

“I think we can use the transformative power of technology to reach out more efficiently than we ever have in the past,” Beiser says. “I’m really hopeful that we’re in a time that we can solve some of these problems that seem somehow permanent.”


Humanities Washington: We know trafficked labor is a national and international issue, but what do we know about our state?

Robert Beiser: Washington isn’t much of an outlier in terms of labor trafficking in the US. We end up seeing similar trends, where we’ve had trafficking victims from over 50 different countries who’ve been identified and connected with services. They’re in domestic servitude, they’re nannies, they’re working in construction, or they’re people in the nail salon trades. Many times, cases of sex trafficking come up and people assume they’re in forced prostitution, but there’s a broad variety of cases where people can be exploited, based on their national background or language. One of the pieces of national trafficking laws is fraud — and it comes up in a lot of labor trafficking cases, where a person is promised money and that they’ll be able to send money home to their families. And then when they’re here in Washington state, they’re told they have a significant debt, and they have to do work they weren’t told they would be doing. And many times they find out the promises that they would be here legally were lies. The threat of deportation is frequent, and a real significant one if someone is told, “You now owe $30,000 to the people who transported you here,” and those people are of dubious criminal backgrounds. It keeps people locked into working for little or no wages under dangerous conditions, seemingly endlessly, unless they’re identified.

What have been the reliable methods that Seattle Against Slavery has found to combat trafficking?

On some level, even explaining the wrongness of it to people who might exploit a foreign-born guest in the country, or even to men who might exploit people for sex — strangely, that does have an impact. When people attempt to buy sex online from trafficking victims, Seattle Against Slavery [using its digital strategies] can decrease the rates at which people are attempting to do that. Similarly, if you do informational trainings, or even like direct-mail campaigns with employers who work with vulnerable populations, you can see an increase in labor standards in environments where people might otherwise exploit. Somehow, it makes them treat workers better! Psychology is a strange thing, but you can influence people in the direction of exploiting people less. In terms of people getting connected with resources, it really can be as simple as putting up posters and signs on buses. Statewide, we do programs where we send text messages out to people who are part of groups that might be at risk, letting them know that help is available if they might be in a dangerous situation they don’t want to be in. That has been incredibly effective. The vast majority of time, connecting with a trafficking victim doesn’t need to be a broad, high-level, solve-all-the-problems type of solution. It’s much more on a one-to-one human being level. People are going to be in health care settings at some point — they might connect with a safe institution, where they go to a church or a mosque or a Buddhist temple. There are all these opportunities where you might give potential victims support, and you might give people in contact with victims a method to respond that would be helpful and safe, and really give the victims the confidence they need to reach out.

What we find is the majority of sex-trafficking victims are coming out of state dependency. They’re vastly, disproportionately people of color, in a state that’s predominantly white, and they are people who have other types of economic vulnerability they’re experiencing.

How does data-gathering serve your mission? How is the information used?

A great example in Washington state is looking at data around sex-traffic survivors. Many of the news stories that come out about trafficking and how it happens focus on the most sensational stories — youth who are from stable suburban homes. That is kind of attention-getting. But we have data now on the economic background and racial background of survivors. What we find is the majority of sex-trafficking victims are coming out of state dependency. They’re vastly, disproportionately people of color, in a state that’s predominantly white, and they are people who have other types of economic vulnerability they’re experiencing. When you have data like that, it lets you say, “If we are going to intervene upstream, we need to target the populations who are in foster care, [especially] youth of color, who are experiencing other types of violence.” That data leads you to effective strategies.

How do you attack the profiteers? Prosecutions of those who organize trafficking seem rare.

There certainly is a gap when it comes to prosecution of traffickers. That is demonstrated when you look at how many survivors there are. What that points to is how difficult trafficking is to prove. It’s very challenging to get evidence in court. There are many cases that are clear trafficking cases that are instead charged as assault, or as withholding identity documents. You can prove that. We’ve hosted several presentations from prosecutors on how they make successful prosecutions, in cases where evidence of trafficking is clear and apparent. But how do we take that a step further and say, “This case, before a jury or a judge, will be evidence of trafficking beyond a reasonable doubt?” In Washington state and in King County in particular, there have been a number of high-profile trafficking convictions that have really set the stage for how these cases are prosecuted nationally.

Is it difficult to discern between forced or trafficked sexual labor, and consenting sexual labor?

It’s always an interesting question for me why anyone would be motivated to assume they weren’t buying sex from a trafficking victim, if there’s a chance that they were. That’s a big gamble—the idea that someone would think, “It’s probably not rape, I’m not sure, but I’m going to go with it anyway.” People who are in prostitution, sure, they can speak for themselves, and say, “I’m in this voluntarily,” but for the people who are buying sex from strangers online, they are buying sex from trafficking victims. We couldn’t possibly have the number of trafficking victims we have in Washington if people weren’t buying sex from them. But somehow those men want to assume: “All those victims — that wasn’t me.”

Robert Beiser is the executive director of Seattle Against Slavery.

He is currently presenting his free Speakers Bureau talk, “Modern Slavery: Understanding Human Trafficking in the 21st Century,” around the state. Find an event here.

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