As an immigrant recruited to work in the United States, Miguel left his home and family for the better life that was promised to him. He was given a temporary visa by his employer, but nothing else was as he expected. His employer refused to pay him as promised and threatened him when he complained. Miguel had become a victim of labor trafficking and exploitation. However, instead of being promptly identified and given the help he needed, it took Miguel many tries before someone recognized him as a trafficking victim. This experience is not unique to Miguel. The Advocates for Human Rights recently released a report on human trafficking and exploitation titled, “Asking the Right Questions: A Human Rights Approach to Ending Trafficking and Exploitation in the Workplace,” that examines how failing to identify trafficking and exploitation leaves victims unprotected.
Workers that are victims of human trafficking and labor exploitation are faced with many challenging barriers. One of the biggest problems is that much of the system for enforcing laws against trafficking and exploitation relies on workers stepping up and complaining of a workplace violation. However, the worker may not know that they are a victim of labor trafficking or exploitation and that they can get help. Miguel, like many others, knew that what was happening to him was not right, but he did not know that it was considered trafficking, a crime.
Workers also fear retaliation. Making the decision to complain to one’s boss or a government agency may put a worker at risk of losing their job, having their hours cut, receiving less desirable shifts, or possible deportation. Workers who are undocumented face the fear that they may be deported if they bring themselves to the attention of the authorities. Even those that are legal immigrants fear a complaint could hurt their immigration status. One worker was so fearful of being discovered as an illegal immigrant that he fled Minnesota and abandoned his case.
Given that workers may not be able to identify themselves as victims, identifying labor trafficking and exploitation falls on community organizations and government agencies. However, they too face barriers that make it difficult to identify workers as victims of labor trafficking and exploitation. One such barrier is that government agencies do not all have the necessary protocols in place to identify victims and so do not consistently recognize labor trafficked and exploited workers. In Miguel’s case, he was given an opportunity to complain when immigration officers started an investigation, but because they used the trafficker (his boss) as the interpreter he was unable to voice any of his concerns. A protocol requiring the use of independent interpreters might have prevented this.
These challenges also exist for community organizations. They may not have sufficient knowledge of trafficking to identify it correctly or an established screening process to uncover it. Organizations also face challenges in building trust with potential victims. Victims may have a trusting relationship with one employee, but not the overall institution. If that employee leaves, their connection with the victim may also be lost.
What can be done to improve identification? The Advocates for Human Rights created the following priority recommendations in order to improve the identification of labor trafficked and exploited workers:
· Provide training on labor trafficking and exploitation to government agencies and community organizations.
· Fund a statewide public awareness campaign on labor trafficking and exploitation in Minnesota.
· Create a self-assessment tool for workers to identify whether they are a victim or at risk.
· Establish a multi-agency working group to make it easier for workers to register complaints using a clear, direct, language-accessible system.
· Implement screening protocols for all federal immigration enforcement to consistently identify labor trafficked and exploited victims.
To read all of the recommendations to better identify labor trafficking and exploitation visit http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/labor_trafficking_report.
By Biftu Bussa, a student at St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota (class of 2018) with a major in Public Health and Psychology. During the fall of 2016, she was a research intern with The Advocates’ human trafficking team.
This post is the second in a series on labor trafficking. Additional post in the series include: