Tales of human smuggling at the Port of Seattle are few and far between, but the entry point’s potential as a gateway for trafficking brings the international issue closer to home. The last reported discovery of people crossing the Pacific Ocean in cargo containers came in April 2006, when 22 Chinese stowaways were discovered at the Port of Seattle after spending weeks crammed in a 40-foot container from Shanghai. Prior to that, 18 people were found aboard the freighter NYK Cape Maythat docked at the Port of Seattle in January 2000—three of whom died during the arduous journey.
An insidious form of human trafficking that is less publicized than sex trafficking, forced labor is intertwined in global supply chains and Seattle’s various ports of entry. Victims of labor trafficking are often coerced to work to repay a loan or service, or through extortion and the threat of violence, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A 2014 International Labour Organization report estimated that human trafficking annually generates $150 billion worldwide, about a third of which results from labor trafficking. The issue is particularly widespread in Washington, which had 163 reported human trafficking cases in 2017, making it the 13th highest ranked state in reported instances, according to statistics.
Human trafficking in the region reached the national spotlight last year following the publication of a covr story in The Atlantic by former Seattle Times reporter Alex Tizon about his family’s indentured servant, a Filipina named Eudocia Tomas Pulido. The viral story received reviews ranging from criticism to praise.
A series of recent efforts launched by King County and Seattle officials seeks to prevent this modern form of slavery by spreading awareness among city and county employees as well as the general public. In January, the Port of Seattle passed a motion to implement training for all Port employees, to create awareness posters, and to ensure that internal policies prohibit employees from engaging in trafficking.
On July 30, the King County Council passed a motion to create a public-awareness campaign in collaboration with the Port of Seattle and the City of Seattle that seeks to combat human trafficking. Spearheaded by King County Councilmembers Reagan Dunn and Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the campaign aims to minimize the demand for trafficking, spread public awareness on how to spot and stop it, and provide greater access to support services for survivors. Similar to a 2013 countywide campaign in which 200 signs were plastered on King County Metro buses and billboards—which increased calls from Washington to the National Trafficking hotline by 500 percent, according to the King County Council—the new effort includes disseminating advertisements at various locations including transit centers, Sea-Tac Airport, and Metro and Sound Transit vehicles.
But it’s taken decades for Washington’s politicians to address labor trafficking as a nuanced issue separate from sexual exploitation. The distinction is significant, says Velma Veloria, a former state representative for South Seattle’s 11th District, who argues that labor trafficking is more prevalent than sex trafficking in communities of color. A Filipino American, Veloria heard anecdotes about labor exploitation in her community that didn’t fit the parameters of sex trafficking. So she partnered with Emma Catague, a former human trafficking victim advocate at nonprofit API Chaya, and Sutapa Basu, executive director of the University of Washington’s Women’s Center. The trio has worked over the past two decades to spread awareness of labor trafficking throughout the state.
Their collaborative efforts started in 1995, when Susana Remerata Blackwell, a mail-order bride from the Philippines, and two of her friends were murdered by Blackwell’s estranged husband during their divorce proceeding at the King County Courthouse. Veloria and Catague talked on the phone afterwards, remarking that the murders were “more than just domestic violence,” Veloria recalled.
In the early 2000s, the three set about discussing the pervasiveness of human trafficking by holding conferences and helping launch the Washington State Task Force Against the Trafficking of Persons, which produced several reports to the state Legislature showing the extent of sexual and labor exploitation in Washington. As a State Representative, Veloria introduced legislation that led Washington to become the first state to criminalize human trafficking in 2003. Yet public awareness is still minimal, as only three labor trafficking cases have been charged and prosecuted as such in the state, according to a 2017 King County labor trafficking report.
Meanwhile, Catague found that some of her clients of Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander origin at API Chaya were victims of domestic servitude as mail-order brides, nannies, or caregivers. Some were brought to Seattle by acquaintances from their home country, who promised them money or support that they didn’t receive. Her clients thought their hosts were “giving them an opportunity, but they didn’t realize that they were going to end up being a victim of human trafficking,” Catague said. API Chaya provided them with basic needs including shelter, food, and translation services. Catague estimates that she served about 15 to 20 victims of labor trafficking in the 2000s.
“For years and years, people wouldn’t come forward because they were afraid that they would be deported,” said Basu, adding that the traffickers would threaten to retaliate against the victims’ families.
In their discussions on the issue, Veloria, Basu, and Catague concluded that poverty was driving many people out of their homelands and to the U.S. as mail-order brides or nannies. They sought to address the root of the problem that led to human trafficking in communities of color. “We need to take a look at what’s causing all of this poverty,” said Veloria. “You tie that to the multinational corporations, and you see that there’s a whole other group of people that are traffickers and play a role.”
The three have since pivoted their focus to ensuring that labor exploitation is recognized as a form of human trafficking. In doing so, they want Washington to examine its own purchasing practices.
The Washington State Department of Commerce commissioned a 2017 study by Basu and Johnna E. White at the University of Washington Women’s Center that gave recommendations to the state on creating greater transparency in business supply chains. After all, more than one in five jobs in the state are related to trade. “We would like our state to begin to think about where they are going to buy goods. Does Starbucks have coffee that does not exploit people, or is gathered by trafficked labor?” Veloria said. They also questioned whether tech companies have anti-labor trafficking policies abroad.
The report found that greater global connectivity is only exacerbating the problem. “It’s a role that multinational corporations play not just in helping to traffic, but in terms of preventing human trafficking,” Veloria said.
The report sought to provide a comprehensive look at labor trafficking throughout the world, and at practices global businesses have adopted that could also be implemented in Washington. One example in the report highlights Starbucks Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices program, which bans labor trafficking in their supply chains.
The researchers’ recommendations to public agencies and private companies included consulting with The Workers Rights Consortium, a labor-rights monitoring organization, to audit state vendor supply chains for apparel. They also recommeneded the state implement an anti-trafficking public-procurement policy directed toward supply-chain management, invest in additional research on Washington’s supply chains, and use Washington’s ports to enforce anti-trafficking policies. In the report, Basu recommended that the Port of Seattle refuse to unload any containers from companies that have used slave labor. “Policy should be developed to prohibit the transportation of products known to be made with sweatshop labor and the port’s position as a chokepoint should be used as leverage,” the authors wrote.
The report, along with a separate 2017 study commissioned by the King County Council, led to the recent anti-trafficking motions by the Port of Seattle and the King County Council. “Trafficking is such an insidious issue, awareness is a key piece in combatting it,” King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles wrote in an email to Seattle Weekly. “The Port has a unique ability to raise awareness and prevent trafficking because they are a large employer and by being a point of entry for international travel with the cruise terminal and airport.”
Eric Schinfield, senior manager of Federal and International Government Relations at the Port of Seattle, credited Veloria for helping the Port recognize that human trafficking extends beyond sexual exploitation. Since their motion passed in January, the Port has trained employees to detect signs of human trafficking, and hopes to create more comprehensive training for all non-Port employees who work at entry points operated by the Port.
“We have a huge opportunity to reduce trafficking in our region. The Port of Seattle reaffirmed our commitment in January of this year to step up by partnering with committed organizations, training our front-line personnel, and increasing awareness for all travelers coming through Sea-Tac International Airport,” Port of Seattle Commission President Courtney Gregoire said in an email to Seattle Weekly. “No one agency can do this on its own, which is why these partnerships are so vital to making King County safe and welcoming for everyone.”