Earlier this week, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and I launched the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking. We were joined by individuals and groups from around the country who are devoted to ending this modern-day form of slavery, whether it is bonded labor, forced labor or sex trafficking. Advocate Jada Pinkett Smith, founder of Don’t Sell Bodies, spoke, as did two university students, brave young survivors of human trafficking who talked about their experiences.
Our idea is to bring Republicans and Democrats together in this fight to respect and protect human dignity. I have heard from thousands of Ohioans who care deeply about preventing human trafficking, partly because it is occurring in our own backyard. When it comes to human trafficking at home or abroad, our government’s policy must be one of zero tolerance.
It is an issue with special meaning for me. I grew up with my mom’s stories about her great-grandparents, Quaker abolitionists who lived on a farm north of Dayton and helped slaves seek their freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. In fact, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, located on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati, is home to a permanent exhibit on human trafficking.
In my time in the Senate, it has been heartbreaking to learn that human trafficking is a major problem in Ohio. A few years ago, the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission estimated that more than 1,000 Ohio youth are victims of sex trafficking every year, and that many more are at risk.
Toledo, in particular, has been an epicenter of this trafficking. It is especially unsettling because no city better symbolizes America’s great cities than Toledo, just as no state better reflects the nation than Ohio. This is why companies choose Toledo as their test market when they are trying out new products.
Yet the Glass City is currently number four in the nation in arrests, investigations and rescues of domestic minor sex trafficking victims. Toledo and Lucas County lead the nation per capita for traffickers produced and victims recruited.
Many Ohio and Toledo-area organizations, including faith-based institutions and nonprofits, are working hard on a grassroots level to help fight this problem. State leaders such as Representative Teresa Fedor, Governor John Kasich and Attorney General Mike DeWine have elevated this issue in public consciousness.
But there is also a role for the federal government to play. That is why I have co-sponsored the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, bipartisan legislation that gives Washington better tools to combat the international side of this plague.
It makes tougher penalties for human trafficking as a federal crime, and gives trafficking victims access to the social services they need to rebuild their lives.
Another area I have been focused on is ensuring that the billions of taxpayer dollars our government spends on overseas development, reconstruction and other projects are not used to support human trafficking.
Though the majority of U.S. contractors and subcontractors are not exploiting their workers, sometimes workers recruited for low-wage jobs — often thousands of miles from their home countries — can find themselves vulnerable to illegal or fraudulent employment practices. These include forced or coercive labor, passport confiscation, “recruitment fees” that consume more than a month’s salary, and failure to help the employee return home when the job is finished.
Earlier this year, as the top Republican on the Senate’s Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, I joined with Senator Blumenthal to introduce the End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act. In June it passed out of my committee, and we are working to get it passed by the full Senate.
The goal is to ensure that overseas government contracts, paid for by taxpayer dollars, operate in a manner consistent with our deeply-held values as a nation. Our bill requires the best practices adopted by some contractors become standard practice on all significant U.S. government contracts abroad.
Addressing the scourge of human trafficking cuts across all party and philosophical lines because it is fundamentally about respecting and protecting human dignity. It is a principle all of us as Americans must hold dear, and it is a fight we must continue.
Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio.