She could have been no more than twelve. She was brought from Guyana, she said, to work as a domestic. It had turned out that she had other duties, including serving her employer's sexual needs as well. We asked if she was in school. She shook her head in the negative. We asked if she would like to go to school. She nodded. Her eyes lit up at the thought but it was soon replaced by a cowering fear that her keeper would discover that she had shared with us this dream of a door to freedom. She hurriedly declared that she must go, fear filling her face, as we asked for a contact number or address. "Barataria", she whispered before scurrying away.
Power and poverty combine in a lucrative trade in humans. This, coupled with inadequate national border patrols, lack of implementation of domestic labour laws, and underdeveloped community systems — community support mechanisms, shelters, a reliable community police — make Trinidad and Tobago open playing field for human trafficking. Official denial of the fact or that there is no recorded evidence has not made it go away. Various civil society interests have been raising the alarm of this country's involvement in the trade for some time now; there has been talk of links to the human trade with the escalation of kidnappings over the last few years. It is usually only when mention is made in international reports or in the occasional police raid on a 'gentlemen's club', that officials raise their heads, usually in denial.
In the broadest sense, the trade has its basis in power structures that promote the unequal relationship between men and women that make women economically dependent; and systems and mechanisms that make equal access to resources by women and girls prohibitive (e.g.: to own property; open a bank account). It is spurred by increasing demands for sex workers, stimulated by tourism, and ironically — with medical advances in organ transplants — has gained impetus through a lucrative trade in human organs.
Various international reports, including from the World Bank, note that Caribbean governments have been known to bury their heads in the sands, with continued denials, because the trade supports their tourist industries, the sole mainstay of many of their economies. The World Bank claims our countries also refuse to implement policies and programmes fearing that any such efforts will have a negative impact on the tourism trade. It is a spiral of disempowerment: women suffering the brunt of the impact of global inequalities on developing countries.
Guyana, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Suriname, Brazil, and OECS countries are known as active participants in human trafficking for women absorbed into the 'entertainment' and 'tourism' sectors in the Caribbean. Estimates are that more than 60 per cent of Caribbean populations live in poverty; that some 100,000 women and children are exploited annually for sexual purposes in Latin America and the Caribbean; that more than 90 per cent of the some 40 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean who live on the streets engage in sex for money and favours.
Research tells that criminal groups mislead women desperate to improve their life styles about immigrating for lucrative job opportunities, but instead sell the women and children, or force them into sexual slavery to repay costs. It leaves them vulnerable too to HIV/AIDS infection – the Caribbean is the second largest region for HIV/AIDS in the world.
The US State Dept Trafficking in Persons Report, states:
"Women and girls are lured with offers of well-paying jobs, and are subsequently exploited and controlled through threats, withholding of pay or insufficient pay, and physical violence. In coastal areas, traffickers promise rural women and girls jobs as domestic servants, then coerce them into working in shops or homes for little or no pay, or sell them to brothels."
The labour shortages of the last few years have seen Trinidad and Tobago scrambling to source from outside. A partly illegal trade in 'domestic' workers from Guyana in particular and for 'store workers' from other small islands and Latin America has been growing, under the oblivious noses of the authorities and to the data collection agencies, as well, it seems. It is well-known that this region's has been casting its net wider, to source labour from China for instance, while large loopholes for exploitation persist with lax implementation of labour laws, and, as recently surfaced with Colombians and Chinese, additional problems with language and integration for examples.
There may not be much data to support claims that women and children of the region are being sold into this kind of slavery, but the evidence can be readily sourced from communities if effective reporting mechanisms are put in place as part of the social support structure. One does not have to wait for the annual appearance of a citation in the US State report to stimulate the chorus of voices claiming and denying Trinidad and Tobago's involvement in human trafficking. Lack of data has been a perpetual 'out' for our Governments in official reporting on adherence to international democratic and human rights standards, including in its report to the OAS corruption disclosure mechanism (MESECIC). The availability of data does not imply that the problem does not exist, and who, if not the Government, has the responsibility for facilitating the collection and analyses of data.
Increase in the minimum wage may be a step in the right direction but it is not enough. What is being done to strengthen the reporting and data capture? Apart from putting in place legal mechanisms — which in themselves are ineffective without enforcement — what other measures are in place for bringing offenders to book? Inadequate policing does not end at our shores.
Even these will not be enough outside of a holistic approach to improving the delivery of social services in T&T. Certainly a gender policy would present a state position on women and children in this country and recognition of their human rights. Empowering and resourcing NGOs can help them provide necessary services including information capture, establishment of shelters for and rehabilitation/reintegration programmes for victims.
The UN estimates that women form half of the world's migrants. They are mainly from developing countries. A large number are between ages 10 and 24, and these women send a larger chunk of their typically lower wages back home to support relatives than male migrants, making their earnings a sizeable chunk of external funding other than direct foreign investments that help boost local economies. Addressing their problems is therefore a key factor in global poverty reduction but at the negotiating table their plights are usually invisible. The plight of female migrants and gender-centred international and national policies and actions must be part of the agenda as the United Nations sits this week to review its Millennium Development Goals and look for measures to more effectively redress poverty.
Dr Kris Rampersad is a media, cultural and literary consultant and international relations director of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago.