California has a slavery problem, says Laurel Fletcher, a clinical professor at UC Berkeley's School of Law and a researcher at Cal's Human Rights Center.
Her report "Freedom Denied: Forced Labor in California" says there were at least 57 forced-labor operations in a dozen California cities, holding in a form of bondage more than 500 people from 18 nations.
Her report claims that "at any given time, 10,000 or more men, women and children are laboring against their will as prostitutes, farm and sweatshop laborers and domestic workers in the United States."
In the Bay Area, Lakireddy Bali Reddy, a Berkeley businessman, imported teenage girls from his native village in India with promises of employment in one of his many businesses. Reddy repeatedly raped and sexually abused the girls and forced them to work more than a 15-year period. Worth an estimated $40 million to $60 million, he owned 1,000 rental units in Berkeley, two Indian restaurants and a high-tech company.
He maintained close ties with the village of Velvadam and selected girls from the destitute caste know as "the untouchables." Often the sexual abuse of the girls started in India and continued once they arrived in the Bay Area, the report said. Reddy pleaded guilty to criminal charges of immigration fraud and illegal sexual activity. He agreed to pay $2 million in restitution to several victims.
Most of these forced-labor operations Fletcher says 80 percent operate in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco. Many victims are from Thailand, Mexico and Russia.
But Fletcher's estimates may be conservative because they're based mostly on well-known, publicized cases. Who knows how much exists under the radar in our multi-ethnic, multi-racial society. She says today's slaves suffer beatings, threats, physical and psychological abuse while living in conditions of deprivation, despair and dependency.
And, not all victims of forced labor are illegal immigrants. The report told the story of a 16-year-old girl from Portland, Ore., estranged from her family who took up with an older man she met on the street. At first the boyfriend treated her well and invited her on a vacation in San Francisco.
On the bus, he offered to "hold" her wallet and refused to return it with all her identification once they arrived in San Francisco. She was offered a choice to make money: sell drugs or work the streets. She escaped after being arrested and sent to a juvenile home. She continues to live in fear of her "pimp," according to the report.
The public, including state law enforcement officers and health care providers, doesn't even know slavery exists. Fletcher recommends training officials to recognize the signs of slavery.
The study makes these recommendations:
-The state should enact new criminal laws against forced labor. California law is not tailored to such cases. The U.S. Justice Department has proposed model state legislation that reflects its experience dealing with it, which the report says should be a model we adapt to California needs.
-The state should train law enforcement and other first responders to identify and address forced labor. Among those suggested are health care providers and health and labor inspectors, who encounter victims.
-The state should create civil remedies for survivors. Robbed of their income and dignity, they must have access to courts to hold perpetrators liable for damages. The ability to file private lawsuits may help them regain control of their lives.
-The state should increase access to social services for survivors of forced labor. The recommendation is for safe housing and access to legal counsel for survivors, as well as medical care, job training and placement support for victims, who may not speak English.
-California should create a task force to develop policy to address human trafficking and forced labor.
Our nation is opposed to slavery in any form and should not tolerate its existence here. We urge local, state and federal agencies to look into Fletcher's accusations and, if it exists to the degree she says it does, pass necessary laws and actively put an end to such slavery. It also might help if there is some correlation between the INS and the IRS.
California needs to bring itself up to speed on such incidents because we're sure to be one of the places where such indentured service, slavery or bondage may take place more frequently than we even know.