Standard Talks

Modern Slavery, In a Town Near You

Do you remember the first time you ever flew alone? Perhaps you landed a job at a hotel in the big city and went there to follow your dream. That’s what Shandra was doing when she arrived at JFK. She was just an ordinary, middle class, college-educated girl from Indonesia who had lost her job in banking and answered an ad for a position at a hotel in Chicago.

She paid the employment broker $3,000 and they arranged her visa and transportation. When she landed in New York, she was greeted at the baggage claim by a friendly man holding a sign with her name on it. He helped load her bag into the car, and then the nightmare began.

They stole her passport, ticket, money, and that very night she was forced at gunpoint to turn her first trick. Candy, as they called her, now had to subsist on a diet composed primarily of booze, coke and crystal. She was bought and sold, moved from brothel to brothel in Brooklyn and Queens, with the occasional excursion to the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. Five years later, she escaped by jumping out of a second floor window.

That very same Shandra stood before an awestruck room at The Standard, High Line and recounted her story. She was one of the lucky few who made it out and is here today, working along side Katie Ford's Freedom For All organization to spread the word about human trafficking and forced labor, a systematic, global pandemic that enslaves an estimated 27 million souls. In fact, there are more individuals in slavery today than during the trans-atlantic slave trade.

We spoke to Katie Ford about comprehending the problem at hand, and how we can possibly help:

Still from Steve McQueen's Best Picture Winner 12 Years a Slave

STANDARD CULTURE: How did you come to work on this issue?
Katie Ford: Eight years ago, I was CEO of Ford Models and the UN asked me to speak on human trafficking. I had never even heard the term before. When I learned that there are 27 million people in slavery, many of whom travel, come looking for a better life for themselves and for their families and that parallels how we looked for models, brought them here to New York. Of course there was no bate and switch, but I could understand that hope for a better life. I didn’t even know slavery still existed. And it still shocks me, every time I hear a different story, you just can’t believe it actually happens.

What's the biggest misconception?
That it isn’t happening here. Everywhere I travel, everywhere in the entire world, they say, ‘oh, but that doesn’t happen here. That's there.'

Slavery is banned throughout the world, yet here we are. Enforcement appears to be a hopeless tangle of local, state, federal and international jurisdictions. What can be done?
There are many things that can be done and are being done and need to be amplified and expanded. In Brazil for instance there’s the National Pact for the Eradication of Slavery which is an agreement between the government, companies and N.G.O.'s to keep their supply chains free from forced labor. This is something that could be replicated around the world. There is the Polaris Project which has mapped out every corner of the US and figured out which agency or charity is most responsive and able to help someone in need.

What about here in New York? When Shandra finally escaped the police turned her away, more than once. They didn't believe her. Why is that?
When I first got involved, police had not been trained to identity victims of trafficking. In Shandra's case, they didn't believe her because they just think it’s some poor person complaining. And they aren’t inclined to go in and raid brothels because there is this idea that those women want to be there. Her story is amazing because it was a stranger, a man who had been in the Marines and he got the FBI involved who finally ended up raiding a number of brothels.

We can train hospitals, social workers and police, especially hospital workers on how to identify victims. The problem is that a person who ends up in a hospital isn’t going to say anything unless they know that the person they tell will know how to handle it, otherwise they’ll just get beaten up again, or get killed.

If there is just one thing someone who is reading this right now could do, what is it?
I would want everybody to utilize whatever skills they have and donate it to a trafficking cause. Be it computers or writing or whatever, use it to do something for an organization. Or donate. It’s the most underfunded charity compared to the size of the problem. If you look at what we spend on drug trafficking, it's mammoth, but what we spend on people trafficking is minimal. Sometimes it’s the very same crime networks.

Left: Shandra Woworuntu at The Standard Center: A modern slave auction re-enactment in Washington Square Park showing people how hidden in plain sight the problem is. Right Katie Ford puts on her Abolitionist hat.

What did you think of 12 Years a Slave?
I thought it was amazing! It tells the story from the slaves' point of view. I had just been to India where an entire village had been enslaved and recently freed. The slave owner, I mean land owner, would come in every night and beat them up, rape the women. People had been thrown into brick kilns. Just murdered. We travel around this country and we don’t know it. And the bravery of the people in these countries who are helping us free these villages. And you should see what it’s like when these places get freed. They are just so happy and thriving.

1. Katie's foundation Freedom For All
2. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1-888-373-7888
3. Shandra has a catering company that employs survivors and helps them train for a career in food service. Hire them today. Call (347) 656-3633 or email her
4. Polaris Project is another amazing organization.

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