Dying for the American dream: there are more slaves today than at any other time in world history

Posted on March 5, 2009
 It was my third year of seminary, 1999, when I first became aware that human trafficking was happening right here in the Bay Area. At the time, I was the youth group leader for the children of my seminary classmates. Every week a group of about a half dozen high school students and another seminarian and I would get together and talk about music, the stresses of high school, movies, social justice, dating, human rights, that sort of stuff.

Around Thanksgiving that year a story came out about Seetha Vemireddy (whose actual name was Shanthi Jyotsna Devi Prattipati), a sixteen-year-young woman from India who had died of carbon monoxide poisoning in an apartment just around the corner from Berkeley High School. One of the young women in our youth group was Megan Greenwell, daughter of my classmate Gail Greenwell, former rector of Epiphany, San Carlos. Megan, who had a precocious talent for asking all the right questions, wrote for Berkeley High’s school newspaper “The Jacket.”The faculty advisor for “The Jacket” passed the assignment of writing about the young woman’s death to Greenwell who proceeded with the assumption that the deceased must have been a BHS student — she was sixteen, she lived in the neighborhood, it was a fair assumption.

Greenwell went to the school’s registrar to find out what classes Prattipati had been enrolled in and quickly found out that she had not been attending BHS. There were a number of South Asian students at BHS, so Greenwell started asking around. “Of course she wasn’t attending school,” they told her, “Lakireddy Bali Reddy brought her here to work, so she was working for him.”

“I was shocked,” says Greenwell, “because so many people knew about the young women working for Reddy (also called Balireddy), and no one really thought that much about it. It wasn’t a new thing, it had been going on for quite a while, and there was really nothing being done about it.”

“Reddy had control over her entire life and she never got a chance to know a life without that. And she was my age… I had no idea these types of things could happen,” Greenwell remembers.

Reddy was (and remains) a well-known figure throughout the Berkeley South Asian community. He owns a popular restaurant and more than 1,000 apartments and flats within the city. His amassed wealth and social prominence are legendary, and some say that there was a time when he was treated as a god in Berkeley and in his home of Velvadam, India, where he has built schools and temples to Krishna.

“Charity was Balireddy’s weapon,” wrote George Iype, associate editor of Mumbai’s news portal site Rediff.com. “He paid at least [500,000 rupees] each for the Mahashivratri and Vinayaka Chaturthi celebrations [in Velvadam] every year. Small wonder then that he became a cult figure to the villagers who looked at him with awe.”

In fact, a police officer interviewed for this story told me that when Reddy was in court one of his trafficking victims was there. When he entered the room she folded her hands in a prayer-like manner and bowed down to him.

According to Iype, Reddy began travelling to Velvadam, a largely poor Dalit (the “untouchable” caste) community and promising that he could bring people (especially young girls) to work in the United States.

“It was during his holidays at the village that he recruited young girls. Those who wanted to go to the US had to stay with him for some days in the bungalow,” alleges G. K. Satyanarana, a local medical shop owner. (“The end of an American Dream,” Rediff.com)

It was on one of these trips that he spotted two Dalit sisters. He told their parents that he had work for the girls in the United States and that the family would become wealthy. The family saw this as a great opportunity and they turned the girls over to Reddy who began changing their identities. A relative of Reddy was enlisted to act as the girls’ father, and the man’s sister as their mother.

According to Rediff.com, Reddy has helped more than 500 Indians acquire H-1B visas to travel to the United States, and more than half of those have been young girls. Perhaps this is why no one in the South Asian community in Berkeley really thought twice about the fact that this man had a cadre of young women. Of course, the fact that he required the teenagers to have sex with him and his sons was never spoken about. That news became undeniable when the dead young woman was found to be pregnant with Reddy’s child.

His community prominence also raises the question: Why didn’t the Berkeley Police question Reddy’s version of the dead young woman’s relationship to him and why did it take so long to bring charges in the case? It was because a Berkeley High student started asking simple questions like, “Why wasn’t this young woman in school?” that the commercial media eventually started looking more deeply at the case as well.

Ask the right questions

Asking questions and looking for clues beneath the surface is the only way to become aware that human trafficking is happening. And it is happening right here within the bounds of the Diocese of California.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Human trafficking is the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them.”

“In the past three years we have assessed and referred over 300 potential victims to social service agencies to let them know that help is available and what trafficking is,” says Lieutenant Mary Petrie of the San Francisco Police Department’s Vice Division.

“For trafficking to move forward in terms of prosecution we need a victim,” Petrie continued, “and many of these victims either because of fear of law enforcement, or fears for their families back home, or for their own personal safety are reluctant to say that they are victims of trafficking.”

In the United States, young women and girls tend to be the victims of trafficking crimes, and most of these cases involve sexual exploitation. But in other parts of the world young men and boys are also transported, exploited and enslaved. Trafficking victims find themselves enslaved to perform all sorts of tasks including farm labor, garment and other piece work, soldiering, and petty street crime, to name a few.

“The federal authorities ran a trafficking case in a nail salon in [San Francisco’s Sunset District],” Petrie told me. “So, it could be anything, anywhere. Ask yourself: Is there an extremely high turnover of employees? Are they non-English speaking, in a low skilled position that might be conducive to using victims of trafficking? Are there domestic servants who are never allowed out of the house? Do they know where the Golden Gate Bridge is?”

Not that any one of these is an absolute sign that someone is being coerced or exploited, but they might provide clues that someone is.

According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders each year. This does not take into account those who are enslaved and never cross a border. Some reports indicate that more than 2 million children are sold into the sex trade every year.

A matter of economics

The problem is that there are very few helpful metrics for measuring the actual numbers. According to musician and filmmaker Justin Dillon, whose recent film “Call + Response” looks deep into the world of the international slave trade, there are currently 27 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, and in 2007 the international slave trade was a bigger money maker than Google, Nike,  and Starbucks combined.

Some studies are starting to look at whether there is a direct correlation between the global economic downturn and the rise in human trafficking. At the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Kiel, Germany, Toman Omar Mahmoud and Christoph Trebesch are conducting a study on the economic drivers of human trafficking. The thesis of this ongoing study is “that migration pressure combined with informal migration patterns and incomplete information are the key determinants of human trafficking.” In other words, as economies decline there is more incentive for people to look for a better life elsewhere, creating more opportunities for criminal opportunists.

Looking for a better life is all too often the incentive that brings people into the clutches of traffickers. Reddy offered “The American Dream” to young women from Velvadam, India; young women in Eastern Europe are promised high paying modeling jobs in America; young men are told that they will be given educational opportunities.

A matter of faith

A promise of a better life is something that we Christians can speak about, and it is the promise that we have to share. Because of this, many faith groups are already working with the North Bay Task Force on Human Trafficking. Catholic Charities, the Sisters of Mercy, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Salvation Army are a few of the faith-based partners in the task force who join together with a larger number of non-religious NGOs to provide social services to victims of human trafficking in the Bay Area.

San Francisco’s Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE) project is one task force partner that provides direct services to victims of human trafficking. According to Molly Ring, outreach coordinator for SAGE’s international trafficking unit, “We will go to a site and assess whether someone is trafficked. If we find that they are a victim of trafficking we will take them to housing. Then we provide case management services, connecting them with legal representation and community benefits, and we help them obtain a temporary visa. We have a range of services including mental health, trauma therapy, group therapy, training and other services.”

Why should Episcopalians get involved? Well, in some ways we already are. In 2000 and 2003 there were resolutions from General Convention condemning domestic and international trafficking. The Executive Council’s Commission on the Status of Women has assembled resources congregations can use to educate their members about trafficking.

Then there is our baptismal call to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Perhaps the eradication of human trafficking might rise to the level of a Millennium Development Goal. No matter, the traffickers are working hard to make sure you don’t see the victims who are right there in your midst. So how far are you willing to go to “seek and serve Christ in all persons?” Start by asking the right questions.



Policies of The Episcopal Church regarding human trafficking

General Convention 2000:

Recognize Problem of and Support Efforts to Stop Trafficking of Women, Girls, and Boys

Resolved, That the 73rd General Convention recommend that every diocese bring to the attention of its members the domestic and international problem of trafficking in women, girls, and boys, and Resolved, that the Convention support non-violent efforts to stop this abuse, to protect the victims, and prosecute the perpetrators of this injustice.

General Convention 2003:

Condemn Sex Trafficking

Resolved, That the 74th General Convention condemn domestic and international trafficking in all persons for sexual purposes as an affront to human dignity and human rights; and be it further Resolved, That the Executive Council request the appropriate Standing Committee to set up national and international plans of action for The Episcopal Church to prepare an educational campaign for parishes and dioceses on the topic of sex trafficking, and to prepare a model for a church initiative bringing together faith-based people with nongovernmental organizations, government, and law enforcement officials to create a victim-centered approach to anti-sex trafficking operations, finding ways to meet the medical, psychological, legal, and spiritual needs of persons who have been brought out of these horrendous circumstances; and be it further Resolved, That this resolution be sent to every Province in the Anglican Communion.