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Human Trafficking Tinnakorn Jorruang Dreamstime

How vigilant truckers can disrupt 'modern-day slavery'

Aug. 5, 2020
Confronting the truth about human trafficking in America isn’t easy, but for properly trained truckers, spotting it and taking action can be as simple as picking up a phone.

“It is indeed modern-day slavery,” said Kendis Paris, about human trafficking, the practice that inflicts forced labor or rape onto unwilling participants. As executive director and co-founder of Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), Paris seeks to stop the problem through awareness and training, which at times may seem too massive and pervasive a problem to stop.

“There are more slaves today than in any other time in the history of the world, and that includes the 400 years of the Transatlantic slave trade,” she said.

Worldwide there are roughly 25 million victims of forced labor and more than 15 million in forced marriages, according to the International Labour Organization. That’s double the 2010 estimate from the U.S. Department of Justice. The current forced labor number breaks down into 16 million used for construction, farming and domestic jobs, 4 million enslaved by state authorities, such as the China’s alleged use of Uighurs to make Nike and Apple products, and almost 5 million forced into sexual exploitation. The illegal trade generates $150 billion a year.

Just before the American Civil War, the 1860 U.S. Census counted nearly 4 million slaves trapped in bondage. At the time, slavery existed in 15 of the 31 states. Today, modern slavery is everywhere.

“There is no state immune from this crime,” Paris said. “This crime literally is happening in every single one of our backyards.”

In the U.S., the number of trafficking victims is in the hundreds of thousands, with men and women of every ethnicity, citizen and foreign national alike being targeted. Paris said females, particularly girls and women of color, are more at risk and can be sexually assaulted up to 20 times a day. In Mexico, one girl lured away at age 12 with the promise of money and a better life went through four years of being raped at least 30 times a day, The Independent reported.

Trucking Industry Involvement

Paris spoke on this worldwide epidemic, which is as difficult a subject to hear about as discuss, on a July 30 webinar hosted by Driving Goodness. That’s also the date marked by the United Nations as World Day against Trafficking in Persons. The U.N. isn’t immune to this worldwide problem, as its own peacekeepers in Bosnia and Central African Republic reportedly were embroiled in human trafficking scandals, which the U.N. attempted to cover up, according to whistleblower Kathryn Bolkovac.

The purpose of TAT’s discussion was to create its own army of traveling whistleblowersthe trucking community—and inform as many as who will listen about the severity of human trafficking and the steps the transportation industry can take and has taken to disrupt it.

“Truckers Against Trafficking recognizes that the trucking industry — through their sheer numbers, extensive travels and the nature of their jobs — could provide an extra set of eyes and ears for law enforcement in recovering victims and having pimps arrested,” Paris explained. “Imagine if all drivers were trained and knew what to look for and then immediately reported it. Imagine how many victims could potentially be recovered.”

That’s not just wishful thinking on Paris’ part. It happens, sometimes, when truckers least suspect it.

This is the situation Arian Taylor, a Ballard Trucking driver from Kentucky, found himself in at 3:30 a.m. in Compton, Calif, in January 2018. He was making a delivery when a distressed 19-year-old woman tapped on his window.

She had just escaped her brother’s friend, who Paris called her “would-be pimp.” The woman sought asylum with Taylor, who had a TAT window decal on his truck, which asks “Do you need help?” and lists the National Human Trafficking Hotline phone number 888-3737-888. The organization has handled about 52,000 calls since 2007.

Taylor gave the woman water, heard her story and let her call the hotline from the privacy of his truck. The victim advocate on the hotline provided the help she needed and she was on her way back to her family the next day.

TAT bestowed Taylor its Harriet Tubman award that May. Paris also mentioned a Western Express driver who tipped off law enforcement to the abuse of a mentally disabled 19-year-old. By leaving his callback info, police were able to track the woman down three states over. A Con-way Truckload driver named Kevin Kimmel in Virgina reported a suspicious RV at a truck stop, which led to the freeing of an Iowa woman who was tortured and raped for 18 days. His testimony helped convict the two traffickers, who are now each serving sentences of 40 and 41 years.

For printable Truckers Against Trafficking materials, click HERE.

Overall, drivers have now made more than 2,600 calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which has generated almost 700 “likely” cases and identified almost 1,300 victims, according to recent TAT data.

The number may be much larger, as the hotline first advises victims or witnesses to call 911 if the event is an emergency. Paris noted those calls are not tracked nationally.

Another point to note is that dash cam videos have been used to open cases, Paris said. License plate numbers, physical descriptions, dates and time are “wildly helpful” to law enforcement, she said.

TAT has an app available on electronic logging devices as well.

The number of TAT-trained drivers will soon hit 900,000. The U.S. Census Bureau counts 3.5 million truck drivers nationally, so about 25% have undergone the training. The certification process involves watching a video and taking a short quiz.

One needn’t professionally drive to be in the right place to provide aid. Paris said two Travel Centers of America employees in Jessup, Md., reported suspicious activity at the hotel parking lot across from the truck stop and helped take down three pimps who were trafficking 20 victims.

The clues can include visible bruises or lack of identification, or be more nuanced, such as signs of depression or fear.

Knowing the signs isn’t always as easy as seeing a girl being taken against her will. As the Iowa Victims’s Service Call Center explains, victims sometimes still live at home and attend school, and the method of enslavement is psychological in nature.

In a TedTalk given by Dr. Kanani Titchen, an adolescent medicine physician and assistant clinical professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, provided more context into how human trafficking can be overlooked or dismissed.

Earlier in her career, she was preparing a woman for surgery who had a dollar sign and expletives tattooed around her groin, but she didn’t realize those were essentially brandings advertising her oppression.

We missed it. I didn’t see her,” Titchen said.

Another time she received a young woman who gave birth on the actual street before coming to the hospital and questioned the new mother as to why she didn’t come earlier. The woman replied her job as a “receptionist” kept her from coming in despite three days of contractions. The doctor congratulated the quiet, stern man in the room, whom she thought was the father, but in reality was the dehumanizing pimp.

“It is hard to act,” Titchens acknowledged. “It takes courage, it takes training, it takes support. It takes a team of people to help us help others.”

The alternative is allowing situations like this to continue, to spend so much time and money to improve the safety of fellow humans on the highway, yet ignore the violence and abuse that could be occurring at the truck stop, which could be stopped or mitigated with a phone call.

 “We have got to stand up and step in because if we don’t it’s possible that nobody else will,” Titchens said.

Taking the First Steps

Paris stressed the need for fleets “to get this free training in front of drivers.” Training or not, having the wherewithal to call to the hotline and speak to a specialist is the first major step to mitigating the rampant abuse.

Along with potentially helping victims, the training can help trucking companies meet corporate social responsibility goals.

“These efforts are easily tied back to CSR and sustainability efforts. And they make for great reports,” she said. “We can work with your company to customize the training to meet your needs.”

UPS has partnered with TAT since 2016 and has since certified 100,000 drivers in the U.S. The company started with 1,000 on-highway drivers in 2017.

“I think we were slow on the uptake, but once we demystified what human trafficking was all about, once we saw the role that our drivers could play, we were all in and we continue to be all in,” said Rich McCardell, president of UPS Freight. “One thing I will tell you is that it does take a little bit of work.”

Once a fleet understands the issue, the “work” may seem more like a vocation, as UPS discovered.

“Our first thought was what most companies do — we're going to write a check,” explained Nicole “Nikki” Clifton, vice president of global public affairs for UPS. She thought that money would rid their corporate conscience of guilt and they could sleep easy.

“After a while, we started thinking through,” she said. “We're hearing too much about human trafficking. We started talking to drivers and knowing that they were hearing some of the stories that Kendis just related, that girls were knocking on their cabs at their truck stops.”

It was unbelievable that UPS drivers were encountering this, and that they also lacked the tools to do anything about it, Clifton relayed.

“That's when Truckers against Trafficking became a part of our DNA,” said Clifton, who coordinates UPS' Brakes on Human Trafficking Initiative and is on the Department of Transportation advisory committee on human trafficking.

UPS has taken a proactive role that includes sending driver John McKown, a former police officer, to speak to other drivers and fleets about encountering sex trafficking on the road. The father of a girl described in a TedTalk how an experience encountering a battered prostitute at a truck changed his perspective and made the mission personal.

He noted his law enforcement training didn’t cover the topic of sex work and he didn’t initially concern himself with it, either.

“Why should I commit all my time and energy investigating this when they’re just out to make a quick buck and they’re not really hurting anything, right?” McKown asked.

“[Pimps] are counting on everyone thinking that the person being sold as just a prostitute,” Paris said.

“There is no such thing as a child prostitute,” she then asserted.

As a police officer in West Virginia, McKown said he had more important things to focus on, such as domestic violence. After one such call nearly cost him his life and the commercial driver's license holder switched to a career in trucking, like his father had done.

When a young girl asked for a “date,” code for sex, he dismissed the girl as just another “lot lizard.” Her resemblance to his own daughter haunted his thoughts while he tried to sleep.

“Why was she going back to that white van after every knock on a tractor window? Why was there s much pain in her big blue eyes?”  McKown had pondered.

“My blinders fell off and my sixth sense kicked in,” he said.

He learned more about “the world’s oldest profession” and realized that many prostitutes “were not just trapped, they were enslaved.”

He said, “most people believe slavery ended in this country in 1865, but slavery of all forms is very prevalent, and it’s happening right under our noses.”

The more truckers who are trained on the subject will invariably increase the number of criminal sex trafficker prosecuted and men and women saved from their servitude.

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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