Hey kids, hereâ€™s a fun test you can do at home. Go to a mirror and look at your skin. If itâ€™s brown, you might be descended from slaves. If itâ€™s white, you might be descended from indentured servants. Now take a look at your wallet. Is it bulging with cash? If not, you might be descended from people who worked for starvation wages. Next, take a look at your main source of income. Is it the interest on your estate? Is it a paycheck? If so, you might be a worker.
You have just taken an â€˜empathy-buildingâ€™ exercise, like the kind Human Resources likes to do when they get us all together to build up our morale about our wretched jobs. The point is to de-pornify and de-exoticize the topic of trafficking for prostitution. Maybe build a little empathy for those whose circumstances of birth were so desperate that they borrowed every cent their extended family could raise to pay a criminal to get them to America. Desperation like in North Korea, where people are starving.
Last week there was another Providence Journal article about a bust on a massage parlor that was not run by certified massage therapists. It was one of a string of disconnected back- page news stories about forced prostitution. The first one appeared in 1998, when the police raided a little establishment in a strip mall in Pawtucket, called â€˜Club Osakaâ€™. One police officer said the conditions wereâ€˜like slaveryâ€™. Illegal immigrant women from Korea were living and working as prostitutes in a storefront next to popular chain restaurant. I took this personally, because I patronized that restaurant. It gave me the creeps. I donâ€™t feel any compulsion to purify Rhode Island, but slavery is something else again. This is no â€˜victimless crimeâ€™. To this day, there has been no follow-up story of whether these women agreed or were forced into prostitution. In any case, when youâ€™re illegal and in debt to your boss, quitting is not an option.
This is actually the classic picture of the indentured servant. You work to pay off the cost of your passage. In the early days of our country, indentured servants as well as slaves supplied the cheap labor that dug the foundations. We missed a golden opportunity to establish a new model for society in the American Revolution. There was too much to lose and too many politicos to be appeased. The profit you could make when you didnâ€™t have to pay the people who work for you was too seductive. George Washington would have had to live in a trailer, Thomas Jefferson would have had to eat Spam. They were slow to free their slaves, even after the Newport Black Regiment helped win the war that changed us from a colony to a nation.
This little history lesson, my fellow Americans, is just intended as a reminder. Those of us who are not Narragansett are descended from people who arrived here from elsewhere in the world. Our ancestors were immigrants, refugees, illegals, trafficked persons or slaves and that is the truth. So when we get all pious about immigration we better remember where we came from.
When you read your newspaper you will see a couple of disconnected stories about the poor exploited women in the brothels, and some lurid tv dramas, and it will all seem very foreign and kind of sexy but gross and nothing to do with you. You have rights. But remember, my fellow Americans in Rhode Island, you live on the coast. Our fellow Americans in New Orleans are not only out of their homes, but out of their jobs. And some enterprising bidnessmen have found a way to avoid paying the going rate for a good dayâ€™s work by luring workers from more poor and desperate parts of the world, and stiffing them on their wages. Whole neighborhoods are still devastated, but the luxury hotels were up and running in a jiffy. The trafficking of people from poor countries to rich ones exists on a spectrum of legality, and most of the work is ordinary drudge labor. Itâ€™s not that there is work that Americans wonâ€™t do, but that there are wages Americans canâ€™t live on.
The issue of sex slavery is not separate from the issue of exploitation of workers. Forced prostitution is a special horror, and women understand. But we canâ€™t stop this human rights disaster by getting moralistic or sensationalistic. And women canâ€™t stop it alone. For readers of the male persuasion I have provided this view from the perspective of the global/historical labor market, so you can see how it affects you. In the end, itâ€™s all about money.
The U.S. is full of illegal immigrants and trafficked persons and always has been. But when you see the same story over and over, â€˜korean massage parlor brothel bustâ€™, this is not coincidence. This type of organized crime is happening all over the country, not just the East Coast.. The mayor and city council of Providence are working on a law to make our city a lousy place for pimps to do business. But if the law is not written carefully, it will just drive prostitution further underground and make life even more hellish for the women and children who do not have power in this world.
It is also important to keep in mind that there are many legal citizens who are working under the table at drudge labor for starvation wages. It is economic inequality that keeps the vampire of slavery alive. We wonâ€™t kill it with one stake through the heart, we will need many years of good laws, wise policy and labor solidarity across borders. If we think we have shut down the illegal immigrant brothels, and we havenâ€™t dealt with the conditions that drive people to risk their lives for a chance at a job, then the vampire will rise again.
Next installment- Evil Vampire II- Child Labor