Most people are troubled by the thought of workers being underpaid, unsafe, or otherwise exploited, but many remain silent, discouraged by the seeming impunity for exploitive employers.
Because labor exploitation is so widespread, traffickers often operate undetected, assumed to be merely another bad employer. Trafficking is viewed as a distant crime, something that occurs in a different city, state, or country than our own. When we look closer, though, we can see that trafficking and exploitation happen here.
The Advocates recently released a report titled “Asking the Right Questions: A Human Rights Approach to Ending Trafficking and Exploitation in the Workplace.” The report examines the experiences of labor trafficked and exploited victims in Minnesota, the opportunity Minnesota has to ensure that all workers, both U.S. and foreign-born, choose employment freely and are fully compensated for their work; methods and signs we all can use to detect labor trafficking and exploitation; ways in which current protections fall short; and recommendations for change.
Labor trafficking occurs when a recruiter, employer, or supervisor compels or tricks a worker into providing involuntary labor. Labor exploitation occurs when employers profit from the illegal treatment of their workers but do not exert the level of control that characterizes labor trafficking. Though both are illegal, current laws and policies do not sufficiently protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.
Labor trafficking cannot be addressed without examining labor exploitation. Labor trafficking almost always involves labor exploitation – not paying workers, forcing them to work long hours, or exposing them to unsafe conditions. These two human rights violations also occur at
high rates in the same industries.
Industries that have high rates of sub-contracting and independent contracting such as construction, have high rates of both exploitation and trafficking. Other industries where workers are isolated or highly mobile, such as domestic service, agriculture, and restaurants, have a disproportionate amount of trafficking and exploitation as well.
Traffickers and abusive employers are master manipulators that exploit the shortcomings of our worker protection system. One gap is that the linked crimes of trafficking and exploitation are handled by different systems. Labor trafficking is a crime investigated by police and FBI and prosecuted in criminal court. Labor exploitation, on the other hand, is typically handled by administrative agencies as a civil offense. To the detriment of the victims, these two systems do not always coordinate efforts, allowing perpetrators to escape prosecution.
It is easy for perpetrators to manipulate the law because they select victims that are the most vulnerable and least likely to complain. Perpetrators choose their victims from vulnerable populations such as women, those with criminal histories, youth, people with disabilities, and immigrants. Traffickers in particular then try to add to the victims’ vulnerability. Victims may be forced to participate in criminal activities, making it difficult to seek help from the police. In many situations, sexual violence is also used as a means of control.
Traffickers also use isolation as a tool against their workers by moving them to different locations, requiring they live on site, or confiscating identification such as visas to limit mobility. The trafficker creates a system of fear and dependence that makes it difficult for victims to break away.
No one should have to live in fear or without being paid what they’ve earned. Those among us that are trafficked and exploited are having their fundamental human rights violated. It is our job as a community to fight back and advocate on behalf of those that fall victim to abusive employers. In the coming weeks, The Advocates will shed light on this issue and what Minnesotans can do to protect the rights of all workers.
By Halimat Alawode, a 2017 graduate of St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota with a major in Women and International Development. During the fall of 2016, she was a research intern with The Advocates’ human trafficking team.
This post is the first in a series on labor trafficking. Additional posts in the series include: