Am I a victim of labor trafficking and exploitation?

BarriersAs 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:

Shedding light: Labor Exploitation and Labor Trafficking

Rebuilding Lives and Protecting Victims of Human Trafficking

 

Shedding light: Labor Exploitation and Labor Trafficking

shadow dudeMost 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:

Am I a victim of labor trafficking and exploitation?

Rebuilding Lives and Protection Victims of Human Trafficking