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New Center Harnesses Mobile Tech to Fight Trafficking

Posted: Apr 19, 2012

In the effort to combat human trafficking, mobile technology is becoming an essential tool. That’s why in late 2011, Kavitha Sreeharsha and colleague Kelly Heinrich left their positions with the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice to join the fight.

In October, the pair began the anti-trafficking group Global Freedom Center, which focuses on harnessing the growing potential of smartphone technology to spread the word about human trafficking.

“Computers aren’t the only way to stay connected,” Sreeharsha explains. “More and more people… are getting smart phones. A group in India can easily communicate with a similar group in West Africa, and our network wants to make this even easier.”

The latest statistics show some 35 percent of all Americans own a smartphone, which they use to access the Internet at least once per day. Worldwide, users of smartphones and tablet devices are expected to top one billion by 2015, with some 300,000 applications now available.

One of those, FREE2WORK, developed by Bay Area-based Not For Sale, allows consumers to scan a product’s barcode before purchase, accessing information and ratings on what – if anything – the manufacturer is doing to combat forced and child labor.

The ratings are taken from the US Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced With Child Labor or Forced Labor, which –- as the name suggests -- reveals those companies using or suspected of using child labor in their supply chains, or of exploiting workers.
Tech giant Apple, for example, received a ‘D’ for releasing details only about its final line of production, not where the company secures the raw materials it uses to produce its popular iPhone and iPad devices.

An attorney by training, Sreeharsha spent years working with the South Asian community in and around the Bay Area, focusing on issues of domestic violence. She says that with more information made more readily accessible, average individuals will be more inclined to get behind the fight to end trafficking, and perhaps recognize its signs.

“In their professional life, a health-care worker probably isn’t going to be constantly coming into contact with trafficking victims,” she explains. “But they might have a patient who they suspect to be trafficked, which is why they need to be educated to recognize the signs and help them.”

So far, 128 countries have introduced penalties that criminalize trafficking. In California, the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act makes trafficking a felony, requires restitution to the victim, establishes a victim-caseworker privilege, and allows the victim to bring a lawsuit against their trafficker. The state also created the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery, which monitors trafficking across the state and advises the government about which policies are effective and what needs improvement.

The Global Freedom Center, says Sreeharsha, is planning to release short video clips available online that discuss the many issues surrounding trafficking and how viewers can help potential victims. It also plans to offer online classes and Webinars open to the general public.

She says the center has honed in on eight core areas, these being: education, health, labor and employment, immigration and migration, criminal justice, social services, journalism and the corporate world. Plans are now in the works to recruit experts for each designated field.

Another area of concern involves media portrayals of what trafficking is, something Julietta Hua, who teaches Women-Gender Studies at San Francisco State University, says leads to a false perception that trafficking only involves women.

“Sex trafficking stories are more tantalizing, so to speak, so they make better news stories and thus appear more prominently and frequently than stories that don't involve sex work,” says Hua.

Sreeharsha gives as an example a recent report from American University’s The Human Rights Brief, involving 19 Hungarian men who were taken to Canada with the promise of “high-paying jobs” but were promptly locked in below-ground basements and forced to work.

She says cases like this often go underreported, as most people believe men are more likely to play the role of trafficker rather than that of trafficking victim. For the 19 Hungarian men and others like them, such misperceptions make it more difficult to come to their aid.

According to the United Nations, Hua notes, trafficking is considered “an underground or invisible” activity, making it near impossible to gather accurate data on the size and scope of the practice. Those cases that do find their way to court are often the only ones counted with any reliability.

A report by the US Department of State showed federal law enforcement in 2010 charged 181 individuals, and obtained 141 convictions in 103 human trafficking prosecutions, 32 of them involving labor trafficking and 71 involving sex trafficking.

The problem, says Hua, is clearly larger than the numbers reflect. But, she adds, “you can’t really poll for trafficking.”

With the right tools, maybe you don’t have to.

Sreeharsha believes the anti-trafficking movement is still in its infancy, giving related organizations the opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t and to share that information.

With two centers – one in San Francisco and another in Washington D.C. -- she says the goal is to build a national and eventually global presence that puts the power to stop trafficking “in the palm of people’s hands.”

Ashley Aires studies journalism at San Francisco State University.

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