- - Sunday, May 1, 2011

BANGKOK | The illegal sex trade gets most of the headlines about the underground business of human bondage, but the forced-labor racket is a largely untold story of modern slavery in Southeast Asia.

In one all-too-typical case, a group of frightened workers last week climbed out of a window at a Bangkok garment factory where up to 60 migrants from Myanmar worked and lived in four tiny apartments.

One of the workers told police that they were forced to work in the factory from 8 a.m. to midnight and paid less than $7 a month.

Two factory owners were arrested, and they tried to justify their actions.

“I detained them inside the factory to prevent their escape,” sweatshop owner Namee Sae Lee was quoted as saying.

The factory owners told investigators that the migrants were locked up and forced to work without a salary because each employee had to reimburse a $500 “recruitment fee” they had paid a human trafficker.

Human smugglers eagerly profit from migrant workers’ poverty, ignorance and desperation, including many unemployed men and women who beg to be smuggled abroad despite knowing the risks.

Forced labor, huge profits

Migrants pay huge fees and bribes to unscrupulous agents and officials to secure access to jobs. But they often end up working in wretched conditions, cheated out of their meager wages or arrested by authorities who squeeze them for cash or sex while imprisoning them before sending them back home.

More than 12 million people are exploited into forced labor around the world, with about 9.5 million in the Asia-Pacific region alone, according to the U.N. International Labor Office.

The illegal trade generates nearly $10 billion a year.

Human trafficking worldwide has entrapped up to 27 million people, according to the State Department. Most are forced into prostitution or other parts of the illegal sex business, but exact figures are unavailable.

Activists urge authorities who are serious in combating forced labor to follow the money to try to trace the fees employers pay to human smugglers.

“When high and often inflated recruitment fees leave migrants heavily indebted, they are especially vulnerable to abuse,” Chowdhury Abrar, chairman of the international relations department at Bangladesh’s Dhaka University, said at a conference last week on human trafficking in Dhaka.

“Cracking down on excessive fees and unethical recruitment practices will be a key ingredient to any reform,” he added.

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