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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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Modern-day slavery in the Persian Gulf

Trafficking word cloudThe Advocates for Human Rights receives a barrage of emails from across the globe, people who are looking for information and assistance in a wide variety of human rights issues. The requests for assistance are a window into the current human rights problems in the world, which oftentimes are virtually unknown outside of the country or region.

One example that I find especially heartbreaking is the modern day slavery that is happening in the Persian Gulf region. Through the Kafala system, a policy of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), citizens or companies sponsor “foreign” workers in order for their work visas and residency to be valid. This means that an individual’s right to work and legal presence in a host country is dependent on his or her employer, rendering the person to exploitation. The GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Every year, thousands migrate from Southeast Asia to the Persian Gulf region to seek employment. With some differences, the story of these workers repeats itself; people from the poorest parts of the world are toiling in sweat and blood in the shadow of unimaginable wealth. In such conditions, however, the international community enjoys investment incentives, luxurious shopping centers, and dreams of the World Cup (many of its facilities are built by migrant workers).

They Are Entrapped

The plight of migrant workers begins in their home countries when they are deceived in the recruitment process and promised liveable wages. Migrant workers usually take out large loans to pay the fees of local recruitment agencies that arrange their work contract and travel documents. While migrant workers are heavily dependant on their salaries to survive, they should devote most of their wages to service loans.

As a common practice, sponsors confiscate workers’ passports. Even when workers have their passports, they still must have their sponsor’s permission to leave the country. Migrant workers have limited options; continue in their jobs, or quit the job and work illegally for different employers. They have reported a culture of fear and intimidation in which there is no access to justice, especially for those who work illegally.

They Are Segregated and Exploited Slaves

Most migrant workers live in substandard conditions in remote areas. In Qatar, for instance, the segregation has been built through legislation by the Central Municipal Council (CMC). With the establishment of “family zones,” migrant workers have been banned from living in Doha; and have been prevented from enjoying public areas, such as shopping centers on certain days. Such laws legitimize negative stereotypes about migrant workers and have the effect of further entrenching segregation.

The World Cup Nightmare

In response to reports of worker’s deaths (in the World Cup facilities), the Qatari government commissioned a law firm to investigate. The recommendations of this investigation about legal reforms, however, have never been followed seriously. While the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants called for Qatar to repeal its Kafala system, it seems that the Qatari government intends to rename the system without removing its exploitative provisions. According to the latest report of the International Laborer Organization (“ILO”), Qatar has failed to observe the international standards regarding migrant workers. Two years prior, the ILO asked Qatar to take meaningful actions, otherwise a United Nations inquiry would be launched in 2017 that will make possible imposing international sanctions. As Human Rights Watch reported, Qatar has promised little and has delivered far less. By continuing in this way, the International Trade Union Confederation reports that, about 4,000 workers will die before the World Cup 2022.

Any will for change?

Considering the lack of protective measures for migrant workers, host countries must make fundamental changes in the Kafala system. In addition, they have enough financial means to ensure safe work, standard living conditions, and decent wages for foreign laborers. Simultaneously, migrant workers’ countries of origin have the duty to monitor the conditions of their citizens and provide them with proper consular support. Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that international companies will acknowledge their responsibility for the miserable conditions of their migrant laborers. For this reason, human rights activists across the Persian Gulf region and beyond must shed light on the lives of migrant workers to end modern-day slavery as a common practice among nations in the region.

By Mehrnoosh Karimi Andu, a third-year J.D. student (class of 2017) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

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Changing the world for good = Minnesota’s The Advocates for Human Rights

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As bad as every day’s news looks, Christof Heyns says, the world is actually getting less violent. He should know. Serving as the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions since 2010, Heyns (pictured below) has spent years looking at the worst of what the world has to offer. But, he says, over four centuries, the percentage of people dying because of violence has declined. “Our standards and awareness are increasing,” he said, but the world is getting less violent.

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Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, addressing the Human Rights Awards Dinner audience.

Heyns spoke at the annual awards dinner of The Advocates for Human Rights on June 1. The work of The Advocates is part of the reason that the world is getting less violent.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a Minnesota-grown organization, founded by advocates like Sam Heins and Barb Frey and David Weissbrodt decades ago, and still going strong. When doctor and human rights advocate Edwige Mubonzi had to flee for her life, she chose Minnesota because of Advocates for Human Rights and other human rights groups headquartered right here. In Minnesota, Mubonzi said, she knew she could find allies and continue to work for human rights.

The work of The Advocates for Human Rights comes from a small staff, hundreds of dedicated volunteers, and donations from people like you and me. Click here to donate. Click here to find out how you can volunteer. 

Dr. Mubonzi got asylum here in 2015, thanks to representation by The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Dr. Edwige Mubonzi

The surgeon who spent years repairing injuries to victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo is still working to end war and rape there, as well as studying for board exams that will allow her to resume practicing medicine, here in Minnesota. She is one of many individual asylum applicants represented by lawyers from The Advocates.

The Advocates for Human Rights is in the business of saving lives. One life at a time.

They’ve been in that business for 33 years now, and still going strong. Founded in 1983 as the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee, the organization became the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights in 1992 and The Advocates for Human Rights in 2008, reflecting its international work and impact. One of its first projects was The Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, internationally known as the “Minnesota Protocol.” The Minnesota Protocol, adopted by the UN as the official guide to forensic procedures for investigations and autopsies in cases of politically-motivated homicides, continues to be used around the world.

Intentionally and from the beginning, the work of The Advocates relied heavily on volunteers. Today, volunteer attorneys represent torture victims, Central American children, and hundreds of other asylum applicants. Their impact multiplies through well-informed, internationally respected advocacy at the United Nations and on the ground in countries from the United States to Croatia to Ethiopia.

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The Advocates’ Rosalyn Park (far right) & Mary Ellison (third right) working in Croatia. Valentina Andrasek, executive director of Autonomous Women’s House Zagreb, is pictured third from left.

Last year, for example, Croatia reinstated laws against domestic violence, which had been removed from that country’s legal code years ago. The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program project helped women in Croatia to get the law reinstated. In 1996, Bulgarian women’s rights activists partnered with The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program to compile a report on domestic violence, leading the country to pass legislation for a domestic violence order for protection, modeled after Minnesota’s law.

Henok Gabisa
Presented The Advocates’ Volunteer Recognition Award at the event was Henok Gabisa, attorney & Oromo Studies Association president, & attorneys from Stinson Leonard Street. The team works with The Advocates to hold Ethiopia accountable for persecuting Oromos.

In Ethiopia, the government persecutes Oromo people, and especially students.  The Advocates supports the work of Oromos in the diaspora as they document human rights abuses back home and work to raise international consciousness of their people’s plight. The Advocates’ volunteer attorneys also represent individuals fleeing torture and imprisonment in Ethiopia.

The Advocates train attorneys to represent asylum applicants, wherever they come from, and also provide human rights education for high school students and for other groups and organizations.

Here at home, The Advocates worked with others to get Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law passed, so that young women can find a way out of prostitution and into safe homes instead of prisons. The Safe Harbor law is one part of The Advocates’ work to stop human trafficking, both labor and sex trafficking, here and in other countries.

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Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law protects sex trafficking’s youngest victims.

Here at home, The Advocates’ National Asylum Help Line, started last summer, has answered calls from more than a thousand refugees from Central America.

Changing the world for good, said The Advocates board member Jim O’Neal at the annual awards dinner on June 1, is “a simple factual description of what The Advocates do every day and around the world.”

The world, said Christof Heyns, “if left to its own devices, is balanced evenly between good and bad. … Each of us has the ability to tip it.”

Yes, said Executive Director Robin Phillips, “We CAN do something about human rights. We CAN be the change we want to see in the world.”

By: Guest blogger Mary Turck, a freelance writer and editor who teaches writing and journalism at Metropolitan State University and Macalester College. She is the former editor of the TC Daily Planet and of the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, a recovering attorney, and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.

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Learn how YOU can help end sex trafficking

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Police may be the first to spring to mind when thinking about who are on the front lines to help end sex trafficking. But most people no matter where you live or work can help end this devastating human rights violation.

Hotel Workers
Hotel staff can help identify potential victims and deter trafficking by keeping an eye out for guests who:

  • Have no luggage or ID;
  • Pay for rooms in cash; rent rooms for others; and/or use third-party reservations;
  • Repeatedly request access cards for different people;
  • Appear fearful, disoriented, or disheveled;
  • Show signs of physical abuse;
  • Are restricted from moving or communicating;
  • Are young and made to look significantly older;
  • Are young but have significantly older “boyfriends”;
  • Wait for periods of time in the lobby, talking on the phone;
  • Do not fit together;
  • Stay for short durations (20–60 minutes);
  • Continue to refuse housekeeping services;
  • Have multiple credit cards or excessive cash, and multiple computers, smartphones, tablets, and laptops;
  • Have excessive number of visitors, especially men;
  • Are men leaving alone and returning with young women; or
  • Have escort and massage ads in their rooms, and/or have excessive pornography or any child pornography.

Teachers
Among their students, teachers should look for students who:

  • Have frequent unexcused absences or an inability to attend class;
  • Have histories attending many different schools or recent multiple transfers;
  • Indicate meals, food, and money are limited or regulated, or they need to help family with money;
  • Have unreasonable work/chore expectations at home;
  • Travel frequently;
  • Use language such as “a train” or a “train party”;
  • Have overly controlling or abusive boyfriends;
  • Possess expensive items seeming out of character;
  • Have numerous inconsistencies when recounting life outside of school;
  • Show signs of physical abuse or neglect, drug or alcohol addiction, and/or high-risk or self-injurious behavior;
  • Resist or are emotionally triggered by touch;
  • Fall asleep in class and are usually fatigued;
  • Have tattoos or other “branding”;
  • Are overly shy about changing clothes or refuse to participate in physical education;
  • Demonstrate unusually fearful, anxious, depressed, or angry behavior;
  • Have familiarity with places selling commercial sex, such as Backpage.com;
  • Show signs of physical abuse, including bruises, cuts, broken teeth and bones, scars, and unattended infections; or
  • Seem to lack basic medical care for illness or injury.

Building Officials
License and code compliance officials have unique access to businesses and properties. While conducting inspections, they should keep an eye out for:

  • Darkened/obscured windows; locked doors requiring a person to be buzzed into doors to rooms locked from the outside;
  • Different men coming and going; all-male clientele;
  • Multiple credit cards and/or excessive cash;
  • Odd or late business hours;
  • Individuals with fearful responses, or an inability to make little or no eye contact;
  • A person with a tattoo or other “branding”;
  • A person who is watched, accompanied, or followed;
  • Potential victims all of same nationality or ethnic group;
  • People with bruises, injuries, or presence of blood;
  • Individual(s) not in possession of ID documents, restricted from moving or communicating, and/or unsure of their location (i.e., state, city); or
  • Young people made to look significantly older.

Suspect Something?
Take these steps if you are suspicious:

  • Call 9–1–1. No concern is too small;
  • Do not confront or intervene with traffickers;
  • Establish partnerships with police in your area;
  • If you come in contact with a victim, indicate that you are not the police;
  • Contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888–373–7888 for referrals to services or to report a tip;
  • Contact a Regional Navigator, if your in Minnesota. Regional Navigators are the main points of contact in Minnesota for sexually exploited youth and concerned    agencies. Find your area’s Regional Navigator by visiting Minnesota Department of Health’s website;
  • Establish protocols at your school, hotel, or office to be ready to respond if needed.

More information can be found on The Advocates for Human Rights’ website, including in The Advocates’ Sex Trafficking and Safe Harbor Resource Pack.