On January 30th, Fordham’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA) hosted a screening of the documentary Walking Merchandise. This documentary was directed by Columbia grad student Ethan Downing and funded by a fellowship from Columbia’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity. While the documentary is barely thirty minutes, it dives headfirst into the muddy waters of human trafficking without hesitation.
Walking Merchandise focuses on the stories of four Chinese children that were trafficked into the United States by human smugglers known as “snakeheads.” After the dangerous journey into the United States, the children are forced to pay off an enormous amount of debt to the snakeheads, often totaling up to $100,000. This debt comes from the arduous journey in to the United States, which includes paying off lawyers, transportation costs, bribing public officials, and outrageous miscellaneous fees. If a child has an urge to use a bathroom on an already cramped and unsafe bus, $5,000 is added to their debt. One girl recalls being forced, at gunpoint, to hop under a moving track. Another boy recounted his own journey that began in a rural town in China. He took a car to Hong Kong, flew to Ecuador to acquire fake credentials, drove up to Honduras, crossed the Mexican-American border, and ended up in Chinatown.
How is a 13-year-old girl supposed to pay off $80,000? Snakeheads aid the children in finding jobs at Chinese restaurants that pay less than minimum wage and house their workers in deplorable conditions. Because they are illegal, these children have no legal rights. Breaks are non-existent, schooling is out of the question, and kitchen-related accidents happen often without access to immediate medical help. As these children work all day to pay off their enormous debt to the snakeheads, they also send money back to their families in China. While each child’s parents’ stories varied, many parents were aware of the brutal nature of the snakeheads and financially benefited from their children working illegally. Walking Merchandise delves further into how China’s one-child policy has negatively affected Chinese familial relationships; Male siblings are highly valued, granting them access to education and younger siblings are often neglected. Without any legal rights, many of these children spend their entire lives as indentured servants with no time or impetus for self-improvement.
I thought Walking Merchandise was illuminating and emotional, but also well-researched. In addition to the children telling their stories, legal experts that work with these children and the author of “The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream” were called upon to express their expertise. For more information on Walking Merchandise and human trafficking, visit their website.
- Dyan Cortez, Music Blogger