Save lives and save humanity — stop human trafficking

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all persons held as slaves shall be forever free. More than 150 years later, modern slavery still exists in the United States — but now it’s called human trafficking.

It’s one of the most significant crises we face as a society today. 

In recent years human trafficking has risen to the forefront as one of the nation's most devastatingly, severe crimes against humanity.

Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry affecting 25 million men, women and children around the world – the majority of the victims are women and girls. Well over 8,000 cases alone were reported in 2017 in the U.S. through the National Human Trafficking Hotline and the BeFree textline operated by the Polaris organization. Of those cases reported, the top three types of human trafficking were sex trafficking, labor trafficking and incidents involving both, which can be found in the operations of strip clubs and illicit massage businesses.

Human trafficking does not occur only in illegal or underground industries either. It happens right out in the open, permeating and connecting multiple highly visible industries with legitimacy, such as restaurants, cleaning services, construction, factories, sports and entertainment.  The traffickers use force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor, sometimes both.

New Jersey is not immune. Our proximity to New York, considered a port of entry for human trafficking, makes our state a hub for this type of criminal activity. We have all seen the increased reporting by media on local cases of human trafficking and the faces of its victims and survivors.

They are the children in the South Jersey hotels two years ago who were rescued by local police and the young girl exploited by traffickers last April in Bergen and Essex County hotels.

In May 2013, the New Jersey Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act, legislation I was proud to sponsor that created the state commission on human trafficking, was signed into law. Additional bills designating January as “Human Trafficking Prevention Month” and January 11th as “Human Trafficking Awareness Day” were also signed that day.

The New Jersey Commission on Human Trafficking was created to bridge the gap between advocacy efforts of organizations, state services and law enforcement and put forth a coordinated plan to assist victims.  The commission has made suggestions which have resulted in increased public awareness campaigns, and victim services throughout the state.

Their work is far from done as the numbers of victims and survivors continue to rise rapidly in the U.S. and throughout the world. Of the 25 million people trapped in forced labor, the International Labor Organization reports that 16 million are exploited through domestic, construction or agricultural work, and 4.8 million are forced into some form of prostitution.

Throughout the country, there are more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses in operation, bringing in nearly $3 billion annually. For the most part, massage parlors have been a part of the American landscape for decades. Found in nondescript strip malls or downtown areas, these parlors may now reveal a potential connection to a broader network using businesses as a front for human trafficking activities.

This is why I’ve sponsored three new measures that would further expose modern-day slavery and human trafficking by turning the spotlight on the activities conducted in these businesses. I believe it is important to expand the duties of the commission on human trafficking and require the panel to study the connection between human trafficking and illicit massage parlor businesses.

I also believe it is critical to urge the State Commission on Investigation to examine human trafficking activity at such massage and bodywork therapist businesses. In addition, to strengthening our courts ability to prosecute cases, the unauthorized practice of massage or bodywork therapies must be made a crime.

As much as we would like to believe that the trafficking of people and the denial of freedoms does not exist, the reality is, it does. Ending human trafficking in the state and nation will require pointed action to close all loopholes and shut down all angles pursued by traffickers to keep their businesses going.

This January, Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we continue addressing this crisis plaguing our nation. The solution requires us to all take part in saving lives and saving our humanity.

Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Democrat, represents the 37th Legislative District in the New Jersey Assembly.