COVID, as we know, has made the vulnerable among us even more so. Not only has unemployment skyrocketed, many of the low-wage hourly workers who do have shifts scheduled must choose whether to stay home and stay safe or keep earning a paycheck by potentially exposing themselves to virus transmission in the workplace. Though conditions differ from country to country, none is immune.
U.S. government officials worry this leaves more people at risk for human trafficking.
“Instability and lack of access to critical services caused by the pandemic mean that the number of people vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers is rapidly growing,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last June.
While Americans tend to think of human trafficking as something that happens in seedy cities abroad or to a ragged few, mostly foreign, sex workers within our own borders, advocates say trafficking happens in all 50 states, in metropolises, the suburbs and the countryside. Sometimes trafficking, which basically encompasses any form of modern-day slavery or coerced labor or commercial sex, happens right before our eyes, in restaurant kitchens, barrooms, hotel housekeeping closets, or our own neighbor’s laundry room.
We just don’t recognize it.
In 2018, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) made a connection: beer delivery drivers, it realized, enter establishments that serve alcohol every day, not to mention gas stations, convenience stores and truck stops. A few of the 600,000 licensed retailers these truckers visit across America might forcibly employ victims, and the roadside stops where they gas up, use the bathroom or buy a cup of coffee likely witness those victims’ movements (though trafficking does NOT need to involve transport).
Brilliantly, TABC partnered with the state’s beer wholesalers to train drivers to spot signs of trafficking and report them to authorities. South Carolina followed suit. Then last summer, the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) saw that it, too, could assist in this effort and launched the Distributors Against Human Trafficking initiative.
On Tuesday, as the country honors its little-known National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the NBWA announced that so far, the initiative has encouraged its member distributors to train 6,000 beer delivery people using the materials it provides.
MORE FOR YOU
“Distributors were eager to get involved,” says NBWA President and CEO Craig Purser in a statement. “These local business leaders instantly recognized the fight against human trafficking as one where they could play a valuable role.”
With 134,000 likely victims investigated by the National Human Trafficking Hotline between 2007 and 2019, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says she welcomes the help.
“We know that human trafficking happens in every community across the country,” she says in the statement. “When more of us are aware of the signs of human trafficking, traffickers have fewer places to hide. This partnership with beer distributors will help us eliminate exploitation while protecting victims and survivors.”
Granted, the NBWA’s “training” consists of an eight-minute video. Distributors can claim to be “certified” after having drivers watch it. But the NBWA does offer many additional optional materials — from breakroom posters to suggested Tweets — to remind employees of the warning signs and encourage lawmakers and members of the public to step up their vigilance.
Caylin Wiebe, of Del Papa Distributing in Texas, says her fourth-generation family-owned business has already trained 350 employees.
“Together with beer distributors from all over the country, we are confident we are going to save lives,” she says in the statement.
The trafficking hotline says restaurants — with their often transient and unskilled labor force, poor working conditions and relative lack of oversight — can become breeding grounds for trafficking, especially among foreign nationals, who comprise 80% of restaurant victims. Some carry debt to their trafficker for bringing them to the States. Many are undocumented and unable or afraid to report the abuse. And those who’ve legally entered the U.S. on a work visa may be dependent on their employer, or, especially in the COVID era, without a job, leaving the visa holder desperate to find work.
“Economic instability reduces a victim’s safety net – if they decide to report or leave their trafficking situation, they might not be able to afford rent or basic necessities without an income or job,” notes the hotline’s website. “Additionally, traffickers often use the threat of deportation as well as document confiscation to maintain control of foreign national victims. They prey on immigrant workers’ unfamiliarity with the language, laws and customs of the US to further manipulate or exploit them.”
As the NBWA has taught 6,000 U.S. beer delivery drivers, a girl, boy, man or woman might be a victim of sex or labor trafficking if s/he:
- Displays fearful, anxious or submissive behavior
- Shows signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment or fatigue
- Shows signs of physical or sexual abuse
- Lacks freedom of movement or is heavily monitored
- Lacks control over money, identification or phone
- Is dressed inappropriately for the climate or their age
- Or if a location contains areas that are suspiciously off limits or have locks
Advocates instruct witnesses NOT to intervene but to go to a safe location and either call 911 or contact the national trafficking hotline by phone at 1-888-373-7888 or via text 233733 (BEFREE).