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Ensuring Justice: Enforcement of Labor Trafficking and Labor Exploitation Laws

Multiple ChoicesAfter being recruited for a high-paying job in the United States, Hanh left her impoverished community in Vietnam, departing on her quest for the American Dream. Hanh paid a large fee to travel from Vietnam to Minnesota under the assumption that her employer had made all the necessary immigration arrangements. However, this person who had promised Hanh a new life was a labor trafficker who threatened harm to Hanh and her family if she did not submit to servitude. Living in fear of violence and watching her debt swell, Hanh was not only imprisoned by her circumstance but also by her inability to communicate and seek help. Eventually, law enforcement learned of her situation and successfully convicted her trafficker of forced labor, freeing seven others like her in the process.

These stories of labor trafficking are not isolated—in fact, The Advocates has heard reports of more than thirty-six labor trafficking victims in Minnesota. Still, there have only been a handful of criminal convictions under federal law and only two under the Minnesota labor trafficking statute. This disparity suggests that the enforcement of criminal labor and trafficking laws is inadequate and offenders are not being held accountable for their crimes. The Advocates for Human Rights recently published a report, “Asking the Right Questions: A Human Rights Approach to Ending Trafficking and Exploitation in the Workplace,” that examines how labor trafficking and exploitation continue to exist in Minnesota.

In this report, The Advocates assesses the possible barriers to prosecution despite the available legal framework. First, The Advocates found that the requirement that victims cooperate in a case in order to receive benefits such as immigration status, originally intended to strengthen prosecution efforts, has instead hampered enforcement. By providing a benefit to a witness, the government risks undermining the witness’ credibility in a criminal case. Secondly, Minnesota’s state criminal labor trafficking law is largely underutilized. Though the state’s broadened definition of a “trafficker” and a “beneficiary” could increase a victim’s access to justice, its lack of use leaves the possibility untested.

The enforcement of labor laws is another vital component to protect victims of labor trafficking. Unfortunately, both federal and state labor laws contain major exemptions that allow abusive employers, including traffickers, to exploit their workers. This is precisely what happened to Jorge. When recruited to come to Minnesota to work in roofing, Jorge trusted his recruiter to help him find jobs and to negotiate his wages since he did not speak English and lacked legal immigration status. This subcontractor, who had Jorge sign over every paycheck, gave Jorge cash back—but only after robbing him of most of the money he had worked for. Based on the Advocates’ research, there are multiple factors which create an environment within which this kind of abuse has become far too common.

First, exemptions to wage and hour laws in agriculture and domestic service remove a level of government oversight which creates trafficking opportunities. In Jorge’s case, his trafficker stole most of his paycheck, but because the cash he gave Jorge met the minimum wage, Jorge could not press charges under wage and hour legislation. Further, he could not make a claim against the larger company that built the homes he worked on because workers must prove the contracting relationship is illegitimate in order to hold the contracting company liable. Accountability is often impossible in the complex web of subcontractors and independent contractors. This, coupled with confusing standards between different federal agencies and state policies, leaves workers ill-equipped to advocate for themselves. Moreover, the lack of coordination on labor exploitation hampers the complaint process. After being referred from one agency to the next, Jorge was forced to cut his losses, find a new job, and sacrifice his pursuit of justice.

This report by The Advocates for Human Rights has highlighted a number of crucial areas of improvement in enforcing criminal labor trafficking and labor exploitation laws. There is a need for training and resources for our law enforcement, community organizations, and other agencies to effectively identify and help protect victims of labor trafficking and exploitation. The following are priority recommendations to help bolster Minnesota’s efforts to improve its fight against trafficking:

· Policy makers need to provide resources for training law enforcement and prosecutors on Minnesota’s labor trafficking laws, including investigative techniques and protections for victims.

· Policy makers need to examine how to provide an accessible system that makes sure workers can recover lost wages in a timely manner and at little to no cost, especially with smaller claims.

To learn more about the recommendations to improve enforcement of labor trafficking and exploitation laws visit The Advocates’ website at http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/labor_trafficking_report.

By Hannah Mangen , a student at The University of Minnesota in Saint Paul (class of 2018) with a major in Global Studies and Communication. She currently works as a research intern with The Advocates’ human trafficking team.

This post is the fourth in a series on labor trafficking.  Additional post in the series include: 

Shedding light: Labor Exploitation and Labor Trafficking

Am I a Victim of Labor Trafficking and Exploitation?

Rebuilding Lives and Protecting Victims of Human Trafficking

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Featured

Rebuilding Lives and Protecting Victims of Human Trafficking

labor trafficking and other forms of victimizationKeeping victims safe should be of utmost priority when tackling labor exploitation and trafficking cases. However, our current system lacks some of the fundamental tools to do just that. Those that survive exploitation and trafficking need assistance in addressing their short term and long term needs. Not only must their trauma be addressed but also the aspects of their lives that left them vulnerable to the trafficking or exploitation in the first place.

Survivors of labor trafficking have endured significant abuse. Their trafficker has complete control over their lives. The trafficker arbitrarily decides when or even if victims get paid and how much. They provide inadequate housing and seize control of any identification documents leaving victims afraid to call for help in fear of arrest or deportation. An employer having so much control over their lives deprives victims of their autonomy and sense of self. This, coupled with physical, sexual, and mental abuse, results in a long road to recovery for those that manage to escape. They need assistance in rebuilding their lives. International standards for trafficking victim protection and assistance take all of this into consideration.

Unfortunately, protection standards within the U.S are not nearly as comprehensive as international standards. There are federal and state laws offering protection from deportation, work authorization, federal public assistance, and case management assistance. However, they are hard to obtain and put an undue burden on the victim. Undermining the victim protection that they claim to provide, the laws require the cooperation of victims in criminal investigations against traffickers in order for them to receive assistance. Foreign nationals and U.S. citizens face additional challenges and neither is fully protected.

U.S. trafficking law benefits focus largely on foreign national victims. Domestic victims are often left with little resources to address their vulnerability and protect them from future trafficking. For instance, people that are barred from public assistance for any reason are unable to qualify for the benefits that so many victims require. This makes them easy targets for abusive employers and makes recovery even more difficult. Our current system offers no waiver ensuring that all U.S. citizen victims of trafficking can get assistance.

Foreign national victims may have designated protections but face challenges in accessing them. Victims must first meet an administrative definition of “trafficked” to be certified as “a victim of severe form of human trafficking. “ Once this criterion is met victims must then follow a multi-stage process to receive full benefits and protection. Federal law, in opposition to international law, requires adult victims to participate with the investigation and prosecution of the crime to receive certification and receive protections. One of the most important forms of protection for foreign national victims is protection from deportation. There are three different ways for victims to avoid deportation yet all three require that victims participate in the investigation of their trafficker. Only after they have agreed to this can they file for protection from deportation. Only children or victims with severe trauma are exempt.

In addition to linking protection with investigation cooperation, there are other shortcomings in our system. A lack of funding has left service providers without capacity to help all trafficking victims. Victims especially need a safe place to stay, but there is a general lack of housing, especially for male victims. If victims cannot find a safe place to stay in the midst of escaping their abusive employer they often find themselves with no other option than to return.

Victims of labor exploitation do not even have access to the limited protections available to victims of labor trafficking. Being recognized as a labor exploitation victim provides no financial supports, no access to benefits, and no protection from deportation, no matter how much the victim may need those things to rebuild their lives and help bring an abusive employer to justice.

The Advocates makes several recommendations in “Asking the Right Questions” to help ensure that victims of labor trafficking and exploitation receive the assistance they require.

· Policy makers should develop a statewide network so all victims of human trafficking, regardless of gender, age, or nationality, have access to services, including both existing services and new funding.

· Policy makers should amend federal law to remove the requirement that victims cooperate with law enforcement to receive services and protection from deportation.

· Policy makers should create a state law to ensure all victims of human trafficking under Minnesota law receive access to services and assistance.

· Policy makers should create a state law to ensure all victims of human trafficking under Minnesota law receive access to services and assistance.

· Policy makers should amend federal law to ensure that domestic trafficking victims who may be otherwise ineligible for public benefits can receive certification, case management, cash assistance, and other help currently available to foreign national victims.

To read all of the recommendations on better protecting victims of labor trafficking and exploitation visit “Asking the Right Questions: A Human Rights Approach to Ending Trafficking and Exploitation in the Workplace.”

 

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 third in a series on labor trafficking.  Additional post in the series include: 

Shedding light: Labor Exploitation and Labor Trafficking

Am I a Victim of Labor Trafficking and Exploitation?

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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

 

Featured

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