“No! That doesn’t impact us,” was Alex Gerbasi’s initial reaction when her husband, who was studying for the ministry, told her he instead felt called to work against human trafficking. Despite her misgivings, she began praying about it. A week later, the massage studio where she, her husband, and their daughter had been going was raided by the FBI, revealing that the women the Gerbasis had been receiving massages from were victims of human trafficking.
“This was in Katy, Texas, in front of one of the key high schools in a ‘nice’ part of town. What I thought didn’t impact me was right under my nose.”
Gerbasi, Chief Administrative Officer, OVS Group, and a Houston native, discovered the city has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the nation and that there were similar establishments along the Energy Corridor, where she works. She also learned that large conferences and conventions are prime targets for traffickers.
“I started to see how our industry was being exploited. Unfortunately, the elements in our industry create the perfect storm for a trafficker to target our industry and no one knows because they’re told these women ‘choose’ this profession, which is a lie, and [part of] the deception around the issue.”
Calling it a “step of faith,” Gerbasi approached Sebastiano Barbarino, CEO of OVS, whose daughter attended high school where a female student had disappeared. (The young woman was recovered two years later and eventually testified before Congress on the issue of human trafficking.) Barbarino was immediately onboard. “Everyone needs to know what you know and what I know now,” he told her.
When OVS launched the Oil & Gas Trafficking Awareness Group (OGTAG) in January 2017, only one person showed up to Gerbasi’s introductory meeting – Jenn Hohman, now Chief Information Officer & Vice President at Seadrill Careers, who was already involved with the issue on a local level through Fight for Us.
“For me, this started in 2016. My family knew four families, that were one degree from mine, whose daughters were groomed and lured by traffickers.” Partnering with John Clark, CCO at Stupp Corp., Hohman began giving awareness and education presentations throughout Houston and, as a result, desperate parents started asking for help locating their missing children.
She estimates that over 60,000 people have been reached through the presentations and that Fight for Us has been involved in 60 recoveries – 59 young girls and one boy.
“Alex and I were involved in this personally, and we had the power of a software company [OVS] and a large operator – I was working for ConocoPhillips at the time – behind us. Now, through Fight for Us, I have a city-wide strategy to engage different types of stakeholders – NGOs, government and law enforcement, corporations and industry, like [oil and gas], the faith-based community, the healthcare community, and the general population. OGTAG fit perfectly into that strategy.”
Early on, when there was little recognition within the energy industry of the problem, the two women sat on a roundtable with Texas Businesses Against Trafficking to discuss how to engage companies. From its inauspicious beginning, because of the passion and determination of the two women, OGTAG has grown to include 55 companies, including major operators and service companies.
The organization held a five-day event in January called Energy Empowers Freedom. Now that awareness of the problem – which includes both labor and sex trafficking – has been created, Gerbasi says the organization has tangible action items to offer companies. Working in conjunction with Truckers Against Trafficking, OGTAG has created a training video to enlist the help of the 6.4 million employees in the US energy workforce.
“What’s going on in the Permian in terms of production is amazing,” Gerbasi says, “but the state is facing an internal crisis with human trafficking.” She found people were willing to talk about labor trafficking but didn’t seem to think sex trafficking was an issue.
“We not accusing our industry,” Gerbasi says, “we’re saying our industry is being targeted.”
Hohman believes the crucial message that needs to be conveyed is that women have not chosen this line of work; they have been coerced and forced into it. “When you help men understand that these women are being are being enslaved for the benefit of [someone else], that’s the big paradigm shift that our industry can contribute.”
“We’re a first-world country with a third-world problem – we have a human rights issue, domestically, in our country – and [the energy industry] is in a key position to influence positive change.”
“People say, ‘We live in the land of the free.’ Not everybody is free.”