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Provo • Want a job?

Simply answering yes to that question led to modern slavery for most of the estimated 12 million to 27 million people living in it today — often with the unwitting complicity of countries, including the United States, a human rights activist said Thursday at a conference on human trafficking at BYU.

"These days it's not about forcible capture or kidnapping," said Kevin Bales, president of the nonprofit Free the Slaves.

Instead, recruiters show up in villages around the world offering jobs. Even though victims say recruiters look shady, Bales said, they take a chance because their children are hungry or need medicine — and suddenly find themselves enslaved, with only rare help coming from governments.

"Whether it's in a small village in Cambodia or in Salt Lake City, every day all over the world people are bought, sold and coerced into prostitution, coerced into bonded labor," Christine Chan-Downer, a State Department officer working with its office on human trafficking, told the conference sponsored by Brigham Young University's School of Social Work.

They and others discussed trafficking and possible solutions, but also said most of these crimes go unpunished — and perhaps are not even believed, because many think that slavery cannot exist today

"Over the last five years, the world has averaged 3,000 prosecutions in trafficking a year. That sounds great. But at the same time, with between 12 million and 27 million trafficking victims, that means we prosecute between .01 percent and .025 percent of all potential modern slavery cases," Chan-Downer said.

Currently, what may be the largest U.S. human-trafficking case ever involves Thais who were recruited by California-based Global Horizons and eventually ended up working on hog and chicken farms in Utah.

As reported recently by The Tribune, they mortgaged farms in Thailand to pay huge upfront fees to Global Horizons on promises of three years of high wages in the United States. The Thais found they could not quit without losing their homes and farms, and were put into squalid living conditions, had movement restricted, were paid late and, finally, not at all.

Sixty or so Thais in Utah were able to attract help from Utah Legal Services, and contacted officials about their plight. Their testimony helped lead to recent charges against Global Horizons for human trafficking of more than 400 Thai workers.

Bales said some countries, including the United States, do not follow up well on workers brought into their boundaries — at least not poorer workers from developing countries.

For example, he said, people from such areas as Africa who receive B1 visas to become domestic workers are not tracked after they arrive, and many end up in slavery. But middle-class whites from Western Europe are given J1 visas to become domestics or nannies, and they have required inspections by government agents, must have phones available and are paid at fixed rates.

"I feel this is so strange that in the United States, you would have an apartheid for 19-year-old girls who want to be au pairs," Bales said.

He added that studies suggest that most trafficking victims in the United States work as domestic servants, as prostitutes, in agriculture and in sweat-shop factories.

Chan-Downer said the State Department is pushing countries to prosecute offenders, protect victims and prevent trafficking — "but we have far to go."

For example, she said, some countries hold victims for weeks or even years in detention facilities akin to jails until they testify against traffickers, and then leave them with no support. Some countries do not protect victims, who are often whisked away by their traffickers to other countries where they cannot testify against them.

The United States offers legal residency for victims it finds in its borders who cooperate with officials, and allows them to work toward citizenship.

Donna Hughes, a University of Rhode Island professor who is an international researcher of human trafficking, said many countries prosecute prostitutes — but should drop charges against those who are victims of human trafficking, and offer them compassion and help.

She added that many prostitute slaves today in America are tattooed with the names of their pimps. "It reminds us of the old branding of slaves in the United States," she said.

Bales added that he has found that "women in slavery are sexually assaulted, it's just a fact," no matter what type of work they start doing when first trapped into trafficking. —

Human trafficking

Recent charges involving Thais working in Utah may be the biggest U.S. human-trafficking case ever. Slavery is big business worldwide, but a U.S. State Department official says less than 1 percent or cases are ever prosecuted. A two-day conference on human trafficking continues Friday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the BYU Conference Center.