People for sale? The problem of human trafficking

In the late 1990s, when I was living in a seminary faculty residence, I was jarred by a news item about something discovered in the north­west Detroit suburbs very near our campus. Two teenagers who had been purportedly adopted from another country had been found to be virtually imprisoned in the home of an affluent couple. They were uncompensated for their household work and unschooled.

It was my first up-close exposure to the new slave trade, even though I had read a bit about it. Somehow I imagined that it had something to do with the “Singapore girls” I had heard were available to globe-trot­ting businessmen, linked to some arrangements with certain airlines and hotel chains. But something in my neighborhood?

Only a few years later, I was privi­leged to attend an international gath­ering of women religious in Rome. Sitting at a table with sisters from England, the Philippines, India, Aus­tralia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, I heard some harrowing tales about the many ways in which human beings were currently being bought and sold on all kinds of ruses. It was a major topic of discussion and led to a number of resolutions, which were particularly welcomed by mission­ary communities.

At the end of the conference, of course, I went home and for a few years thought very little about the subject.

Then one day, a principal here in our diocese came in with a story about meeting a young woman out­side the parish church who said that she and a group of college girls had been brought here for what was supposed to be an immersion experi­ence in the operations of American commerce.

They had ended up crammed into a small apartment, left with bicycles as their only means of transporta­tion, and assigned to do stockroom work in an area grocery chain. She was a Catholic who, months after her arrival, had finally managed to get someone to drop her off at church. The principal made a number of efforts to connect her with someone who could speak her language and advocate for her with authorities.

The story reminded me of the day in the parish office when a preg­nant young woman arrived, asking for help with her apartment rent. It seems that she was an American citizen living with an un­documented part­ner. They were in a small apartment, which was housing eight members of the extended family of both. He had been working for a landscaper and, after three months of stalling on the promised payment for his hours of labor, finally realized that he was never going to be paid.

True, it was all under the table and the fact that he was working broke laws, but the man had labored in hot sun for many hours a day for weeks on end. It suddenly came to him that he had no recourse if the employer never paid him the wages they had agreed to. We went to her apartment complex and paid two month’s rent, but knew it was only a bandage.

Apparently there are many situa­tions like this around.

Adults, young adults, teens, and children are being used and abused — as a labor force in homes, small businesses, hospitality services, agribusinesses, pornography, and the sex trade. State Attorney Gen­eral Alan Wilson and an ecumenical group of Georgia and South Carolina churches have been making efforts to alert people to pay attention to what is going on in their neighbor­hoods and area restaurants, hotels, nail salons, and so on.

It is with good reason that Pope Francis has repeatedly talked about the evil of human trafficking and convened seminars to raise aware­ness of the extent of this interna­tional problem. What are the risk factors? “Poverty, lack of education, disintegrated families and weak or corrupt law enforcement,” say the sources close to the Holy Father.

This is one of the contemporary problems most of us would like to hope would never exist — and cer­tainly not in our towns and cities.

What can we do? Keep our eyes and ears open. Ask some questions when something does not seem quite right. Call 911 if something seems suspicious, or contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 888-373-7888. Check infor­mation regarding South Carolina initiatives on Refuse to be naïve about the ingenious ways our neighbors and fellow citizens come up with to put profits before people. Pray for conversion — for all of us, who like everything available at the lowest cost.

As St. John Paul II said in his encyclical “On Human Work”, the human person is not “a special kind of merchandise” or part of “a work force”, but instead is an individual with rights.

Those rights are meant to protect every human being so that he or she can enjoy the “positive and creative, educational and meritorious charac­ter of man’s work.”

The late Holy Father emphasized the fact that all work, no matter how tedious, carries an inherent dig­nity — but that is only evident if we conscientiously preserve the dignity of the human worker.

Every person, from anywhere in the world, deserves a chance to find in his or her work “a glimmer of new life, of the new good, as if it were an announcement of ‘the new heavens and the new earth,’” which are part of the Easter promise.

That’s what a past saintly pope has said and what Pope Francis is trying to bring home to us — yes, in our own backyards.


Human trafficking: Recognizing the signs

The following is a list of potential red flags and indicators of human trafficking to help you recognize the signs. If you see any of these red flags, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Visit the National Human Trafficking Resource Center website for more red flags.

Common Work and Living Conditions:

  • Is not free to leave
  • Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp/manager
  • Is unpaid or paid very little
  • Works excessively long, unusual hours
  • Is not allowed breaks or has unusual restrictions at work
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
  • Was recruited through false promises
  • High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up win­dows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior:

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submis­sive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Is unusually fearful or anxious about law enforcement
  • Avoids eye contact

Poor Physical Health:

  • Lacks medical care and/or is denied medical services by employer
  • Appears malnourished or shows signs of repeated exposure to harm­ful chemicals
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, or torture

Lack of Control:

  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is not in control of his/her own money
  • Is not in control of identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Is not allowed to speak for them­selves


  • Claims of just visiting, inability to clarify where he/she is staying
  • Loss of sense of time
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story

Source: National Human Trafficking Resource Center

About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 130 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at