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Effort to raise awareness of human trafficking in the transportation industry

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Michael Hibblen
/
KUAR News
With more truck drivers on the road than police officers, trucking companies are training employees how to identify potential victims of human trafficking.

The trucking industry is working to raise awareness of human trafficking that affects about 40 million people worldwide.

In an event Tuesday, staff of Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and the nonprofit Truckers Against Trafficking discussed the problem, its warning signs and how to help victims. The Business Integrity Leadership Initiative of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas hosted the event.

Cindy Moehring, executive chair of the Business Integrity Leadership Initiative, said more than 900 people registered for the in-person and virtual event.

Kendis Paris, CEO of Truckers Against Trafficking, explained the organization’s work to disrupt the human traffickers’ system and how people can help. Paris said more than 1,300 victims of human trafficking have been identified because of calls from truck drivers and truck stop employees.

“You really can be a change maker for social good, which is what this program is all about,” Paris said. “You can use your networks, your influences and your resources to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems. But to do this in an effective manner, it is imperative that the systems that create some of those problems be addressed. Otherwise, we’re just kind of putting Band-Aids on gunshot wounds.”

Paris said the organization “is building the largest mobile army of transportation professionals dedicated to discovering and disrupting human trafficking networks.”

Liz Williamson, training specialist for Truckers Against Trafficking, described growing up being human trafficked for 17 years and how she survived the commercial sex trade.

“Globally speaking, you have 40 million people who are in modern-day slavery today,” she said. “It’s a $150 billion industry. It may seem so huge that we may wonder how in the world are we going to make a difference.”

Williamson said Nov. 9 was her birthday and that she was first sold on one of her birthdays. She was trafficked between ages 6 and 23. Williamson said her mother, who was a nurse, arranged to sell her to a family friend. Her mother told her that if she loved her, she would do what the man asked. She noted that pornography was commonly viewed in the home and that her mother was also likely sold as a child.

Williamson said by age 8, she wanted to disappear. She didn’t want to exist. She recalled trips across Arkansas to see men supposedly on hunting trips who didn’t return with any wild game. She said the men were doctors, lawyers, pastors and police.

“These men thought that they could get away with it because their bank accounts said that they should be respected because money can be tossed around," Williamson said. "Like somehow that is what we should respect.”

She noted some warning signs of being trafficked, such as injuries that cannot be explained, not making eye contact and being afraid to speak without permission. She said during the times in Arkansas, she would have liked the public to have shown her kindness.

“Maybe I just needed one kind word to keep me going that day,” Williamson explained. “I did occasionally have kind people. When I finally left human trafficking, I left without shoes on in the middle of the night when I was 23.”

She recalled leaving a house during a rainstorm with a guard at a gate allowing her to pass. Afterward, she lived in a homeless shelter for about a year.

Williamson challenged the event attendees to not always believe the in-charge adult and to not ignore gut feelings.

Paris said Truckers Against Trafficking is working with transportation, bus and energy sectors on what to look for to identify human trafficking. She noted that the organization has an app that helps people identify the warning signs of human trafficking.

Paris said more truck drivers are on the road at any given time than police officers.

“They really are the eyes and ears of our nation’s highways,” she added.

The organization works with truck stops to become safe spots for those being trafficked instead of trying to run them off. It also provides training for law enforcement to identify signs of sex trafficking. 12 states, including Arkansas, require the training when seeking a commercial driver’s license or renewal of one. The organization has 1.2 million registered as trained.

Greer Woodruff, senior vice president of corporate safety, security and driver personnel for J.B. Hunt, said the company had trained more than 102,000 employees over the past seven years about human trafficking. He noted the company is a platinum sponsor of Truckers Against Trafficking, and in early 2020, pledged to be a transportation leader against human trafficking. The company included the efforts in its 2020 Sustainability Report.

“Victims of human trafficking are often hidden in plain sight at locations our employees frequent daily such as rest stops and truck stops,” Woodruff said in the report. “As part of our safety culture, J.B. Hunt employees are trained how to recognize the signs of trafficking and report suspicious activity. We proudly support the federal Transportation Leaders Against Human Trafficking initiative and are committed to helping end human trafficking.”

In the United States, the most predominant form of human trafficking is the commercial sex trade, Woodruff said.

“The truth is that we have a demand problem,” he said. “We need to reduce demand by education and having people have an appropriate appreciation for what commercial sex trade is."

“Prostituted people are not participating in the commercial sex trade for their own pleasure or gain,” Woodruff added. “Wherever there’s a buyer, there’s a victim on the other side of that transaction. That’s a bad deal.”

He said a third party is benefitting. And without the demand for human trafficking, it wouldn’t exist.

“We’re using our 30,000 J.B. Hunt employees who want to turn more victims into survivors,” he said.

Woodruff and John Kimzey, a dedicated driver for J.B. Hunt, explained missed opportunities to identify the signs and help potential victims of human trafficking.

Also, Kimzey said he called 911 to report young women being transported in Arkansas hidden among crates of chickens. He noted this was in 2017 and that police were not prepared for this and were unsure whether it was in their jurisdiction.

“That also shows me that we need more awareness of the priority of these types of scenarios because even with the training that they’ve had, they’re missing the mark,” Kimzey said.

He encouraged event attendees to continue to raise awareness of human trafficking.

“I hope that this will go out,” Kimzey said. “This will become a part of the business systems and that you all will continue this forward in the companies that you lead. Changing the environment and perceptions in our nation’s businesses and community using the understanding and knowledge instead of the avoidance and dismissal can only be done with your help."

“We have to stop saying, ‘It’s not my problem, and it’s none of my business,’” Kimzey added. “We have to spread the awareness if we’re ever going to keep these horror stories of abuse from coming into each one of our homes.”