Modern-Day Slave Traders Face Trial in US District Court
Two of five brothers, accused of being modern day slave traders, are set to go to trial in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
According to a federal indictment, the Botsvynyuk brothers lured poor Ukrainians into slavery, promising them jobs and housing in the U.S. but forcing them into slave labor upon their arrival.
The federal indictment [PDF] claims:
BO [Botsvynyuk Organization] members obtained workers in Ukraine for the nighttime cleaning crews by falsely enticing poor, out of work individuals, mostly men who had completed military service, in Ukraine with promises of good paying jobs, homes, and the possibility of earning $10,000 after three years of working for the defendants in the United States. The workers were variously told that they could earn between $300 and $500 per month, that their room and board would be taken care of by the defendants, and that the defendants would take care of the travel arrangements from Ukraine to the United States. Either in Ukraine or after arrival in the United States, the workers were told they owed a substantial debt to the defendants, or clearly understood that a debt was owed, although the amount of the debt was not always clear.
The accused Botsvynyuk brothers allegedly smuggled their victims into the United States by transporting them to Mexico. According to the indictment, “Once in Mexico, BO associates smuggled the workers illegally across the Mexican-United States border by having the workers wear American-style clothing and instructing the workers to simply state ‘U.S.’ to any border patrol representative.”
Some of those crossing the border were caught by the Border Patrol. The indictment notes: “For those workers who were unsuccessful in crossing the border and were taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol officers, BO associated attorneys arranged to have them released after almost two months in detention. Attorneys instructed the workers to falsely claim asylum. Once released, the immigration detention centers provided dates to the workers to return to court for immigration hearings.”
Once in the United States, or successfully released from detention, the organization arranged to transport their victims to Philadelphia.
“Once in Philadelphia,” the indictment says, “the workers were met by the defendants and were put to work immediately at nighttime cleaning jobs. Some of the workers lived in the defendants' residences, while others were placed in apartments. The defendants housed all of the workers. The workers slept on dirty mattresses on the floor, often five or six people to a room. The defendants confiscated the workers' passports and travel documents and prevented them from returning to California to attend their scheduled immigration hearings. Thus, the workers remained in the United States illegally.”
The indictment goes on to describe the life led by those victimized by the criminal organization allegedly run by the Botsvynyuk brothers. Prosecutors claim that the victims were not given enough money to buy food, causing some to work at extra jobs and reducing the amount of sleep time available to them. The indictment claims that the victims of the slavery ring “were able to move about for purposes of work, the movement and whereabouts of the workers were monitored.” The workers were also told that they owed a large debt to their overlords though “the workers were rarely, if ever, informed as to the exact amount of the debt or how much of the debt had been paid off due to their labor and their lack of payment.”
Using physical violence and intimidation, prosecutors allege that the slavers forced the workers to work up to 16 hours a day. The indictment details the threats and punishments used to keep the victims working for the defendants:
The BO used intimidation, threats of physical harm, and actual violence on workers by slapping, punching and kicking workers when the workers either inquired about the initial promises of payment they had received in Ukraine, or their working conditions. Some were slapped if the BO members were dissatisfied with their performance. If workers were caught escaping or leaving the defendants' employ, they were struck. The defendants often warned the workers that if they did not work, that the workers had families back in Ukraine who could be harmed and who would be forced to pay off the workers' debts. The defendants created and fostered an atmosphere and climate of fear by striking and kicking workers in front of other workers, threatening to physically harm or kill the workers, or threatening to harm the workers' families in Ukraine. In at least one instance, a female worker was brutally raped and kept in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety for her safety. All the workers were made to fear for their and their families' safety.
In one instance, according to prosecutors, the alleged human traffickers would force one worker’s eight-year-old daughter into prostitution and then would kill the worker and, essentially, feed him to the fishes.
Reporting on the case, Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Michael Matza noted that the victims of the trafficking ring worked at night, cleaning “big-box stores and supermarkets, including Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart and Safeway, here and in New Jersey, Delaware, New York, and Maryland....”
According to the Associated Press, prosecutors are not filing charges against the retailers. “They say they usually hire cleaning crews through subcontractors,” AP’s Maryclaire Dale reported.
A crime largely hidden from public awareness, human trafficking is increasingly common even in the United States.
In its 2011 report on human trafficking, the U.S. State Department described the presence of the slave trade in the United States. According to the report:
The United States is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, document servitude, and sex trafficking. Trafficking occurs for commercial sexual exploitation in street prostitution, massage parlors, and brothels, and for labor in domestic service, agriculture, manufacturing, janitorial services, hotel services, hospitality industries, construction, health and elder care, and strip club dancing.
Combined federal and state human trafficking information indicates more sex trafficking than labor trafficking investigations and prosecutions, but law enforcement identified a comparatively higher number of labor trafficking victims as such cases uncovered recently have involved more victims. U.S. citizen victims, both adults and children, are predominantly found in sex trafficking; U.S. citizen child victims are often runaways, troubled, and homeless youth. Foreign victims are more often found in labor trafficking than sex trafficking. In 2010, the number of female foreign victims of labor trafficking served through victim services programs increased compared with 2009. The top countries of origin for foreign victims in FY 2010 were Thailand, India, Mexico, Philippines, Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic.
While it is noteworthy in the matter of the Botsvynyuk brothers that a case has reached trial, human trafficking has become an international epidemic with law enforcement having substantial difficulty in blunting its impact.
According to figures published by the State Department and referenced in a 2009 report published by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), approximately 600,000 to 800,000 victims are trafficked annually across international borders worldwide and approximately half of these victims are younger than age 18.”
The State Department figure is likely highly conservative. The same HHS report notes: “the International Labor Organization has estimated that at any given time, 12.3 million people are in forced labor, bonded labor, forced child labor, sexual servitude, and involuntary servitude.”