Ataria Malveaux was 18, just out of high school, when she fled a chaotic family life in Houston for the promise of making quick money in Dallas. She soon discovered her would-be employer was a pimp; only the help of another woman allowed her to escape forced prostitution.
Last week, memories of that harrowing experience came flooding back to Malveaux, now 43 and an operations analyst at Royal Dutch Shell in Houston, as she toured a mobile exhibit highlighting the risks and dangers of human trafficking in the oil and gas industry. She broke down in tears.
“It was very emotional because it happened to me,” Malveaux said. “A lot of young girls out there don’t have the awareness. They don’t have the support.”
The mobile exhibit is part of the increased effort by the energy industry to combat a criminal activity that has plagued it behind the scenes for decades — from West Texas oil fields to Houston energy conferences to gasoline stations and truck stops. Human trafficking, a euphemism for modern-day slavery of forced labor and prostitution, has long targeted the oil and gas industry and its male-dominated workforce.
Over the past week, the exhibit, which included testimonials and detailed information about how trafficking works and how to spot warning signs, stopped at more than a dozen major oil and gas companies to train workers to recognize human trafficking and report it to authorities. The energy industry, organizers said, is uniquely positioned to take on the issue, not only because of its vulnerabilities but also because of its global reach.
What to do
If you suspect trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
If someone is in immediate danger, call 911.
“This is going to be very effective because oil and gas has picked up this issue,” Malveaux said. “We have a huge voice in the world.”
The United Nations estimates that more than 40 million people — at least 10 million of them children — are victims of human trafficking worldwide. Human trafficking ranks only behind the drug trade in global criminal enterprises and can range from large multinational trafficking rings to local pimps.
The mobile exhibit and training, called the Freedom Drivers Project, was started by Truckers Against Trafficking, which is supported by truckers associations and truck stop operators, such as Pilot Flying J of Knoxville, Tenn. The group has since partnered with energy companies and the Oil & Gas Trafficking Awareness Group, which was founded in Houston two years ago.
The weeklong awareness tour was the largest event yet held by the Oil & Gas Trafficking Awareness Group, said co-founder Jennifer Hohman, who also is the chief information officer at Seadrill, an offshore drilling firm, in Houston.
“It’s only been in the past few years that people are really beginning to talk more about this issue,” Hohman said. “It’s always been there, but everyone in this community is starting to take notice.”
Hohman and others started the awareness group to put a spotlight on a problem that touches on almost every aspect of the energy sector but is too often ignored. The tour coincided with National Human Trafficking Awareness Day on Sunday.
Over the weekend, Shell started playing trafficking awareness public service announcements at all of its U.S. retail gas stations that have TV screens at the pumps. Shell decided to get more involved after executives started getting more reports from long-haul truck drivers of forced prostitution at its service stations and truck stops.
“This is a heinous crime,” said Fergie Theriault, Shell general manager of marketing and delivery. “As part of our societal license to operate, we need to intervene. We need to help.”
Truckers Against Trafficking was formed a decade ago to train truck drivers to report sex trafficking, said Ashley Smith, TAT’s energy operations director. About 845,000 truck drivers and trucking industry employees have received training, but the group realized the problem reached far beyond truck stops and began partnering with other industries, particularly oil and gas.
“We’ve built out this program because traffickers are going to target any areas where there’s large groups of men,” Smith said.
Survivors and advocates say there’s no typical trafficking victim. They can be men or women and range from unauthorized immigrants to American teenagers, who are targeted online, manipulated and trapped by human traffickers.
Annika Huff started working as a field trainer with Truckers Against Trafficking after she barely survived the routine beatings and torture from a pimp who kidnapped her and sold her into the sex trade in Las Vegas in 2014.
Huff said she had dropped out of school and was temporarily living with her alcoholic father in Las Vegas. At 18, she was at a bus stop planning to leave Nevada when she was picked up by a man and some women whom she thought she could trust.
She quickly was forced into prostitution. Her escape attempts failed, resulting in beatings that broke dozens of her bones. After two months, suffering from gangrene infections, severe injuries and major blood loss, she was left by the pimp for dead.
She was hospitalized and underwent 12 surgeries before making it back to family in California. After the pimp was arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2016, Huff publicly joined the fight against trafficking
“Human trafficking happens everywhere from small towns to big cities. Nowhere is safe,” she said. “They prey on vulnerabilities. It can happen to anyone.”
Huff helps truckers and other industry workers spot the warning signs, such as the involvement of minors. She encourages young women to develop support systems, such as networks of friends.
Malveaux said she spent her early years hopping from different family members in Houston, Louisiana and California. After graduating from high school in Houston, she said she felt virtually alone in Houston and needed money.
She said she then heard about an opportunity to make quick cash in Dallas and fell for it. At first, she said, she didn’t realize the other women were prostitutes and the employer a pimp.
“When that shoe box went on the floor and everyone put their money in it,” Malveaux recalled, “I knew something was not right.”
Fortunately for her, another woman who lived close by warned her that she’d fallen into the clutches of a pimp and that she needed to get out. She helped her escape and put Malveaux on a bus to Houston.
After a few years of odd jobs, she got an entry-level position with Shell, earned her associate’s degree and worked her way up. She plans to get more involved with the efforts of Shell and the oil and gas sector to bring attention to the issue.
“I smile, and my smile is genuine because I made it out,” she said. “Now I’m stronger.”
This article first appeared on the Houston Chronicle – an Energy Voice content partner. For more from the Houston Chronicle click here.