By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
Lawmakers, social workers, attorneys, victims and advocates came together at San Diego Central Library to discuss the issue of labor trafficking and gaps in response to this form of human trafficking. Victims and advocates who spoke before a panel of public policy experts had one message: California must do more to treat labor trafficking victims equally to human trafficking victims.
The public hearing was hosted by California’s independent government oversight agency The Little Hoover Commission on Nov. 21. Choosing San Diego as the location of the first statewide public hearing was intentional because of its proximity to the border. As commissioners and audience members learned, unlike sex trafficking (which often ensnares U.S. citizens), forced labor cases almost always contain an element of immigration.
California Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins opened the hearing to discuss the efforts she has made at the Legislature to address human trafficking. She acknowledged that the focus since human trafficking was made a felony in California in 2005 has been on sex trafficking, and now it is time for people to turn their attention to labor trafficking since much less is known about it. Atkins said more temporary housing and specialized services are needed, as well as data on the issue. She shared findings from a 2012 study by SDSU researcher Sheldon Zhang on labor trafficking in San Diego County that showed 30% of migrant laborers are victims of trafficking and 50% of migrant laborers face abusive practices.
A Los Angeles man, who wished to remain anonymous, explained in an email exchange his own experience of labor abuse. He is in the U.S. on a student visa, which bars him working off of his college campus. When he took a job at a grocery store to pay for his living expenses, he was subjected to lesser pay than those with citizenship and the loss of certain workplace protections. He complained that immigrants were given long shifts without overtime pay, which he described as “the deliberate and willful exploitation of our labor by being assigned to work shifts of cruel and unnatural length.”
Immigrants in the so-called “underground economy” are already in a precarious position: if injured, they would have to fend for themselves because they are not listed on the business’s workers compensation insurance.
“[The] work place abuse faced by new immigrants leads us to feel that the employees were not even treated as human beings, but as slaves whose rights were ignored in lieu of the employer’s pursuit of economic success,” said the man.
After Atkins’ opening address, two survivors shared their stories publicly.
“My name is Angela and I’m a survivor of labor trafficking,” said Angela Guanzon. She explained how when she immigrated, she was told she was working to pay off debt. She wasn’t familiar with labor protection laws so she didn’t know it was illegal to be forced to stay in the nursing home she worked with no time off or breaks.
Guanzon raised the larger issue of consumerism and corporate greed adding to the worldwide issue, since fast fashion, cobalt mining (a material in high demand for its use in cell phones and other tech products), and agriculture often rely on forced or child labor, even if it does not happen in the U.S.
“Demand for cheap goods competes with corporations [that] want more profit,” she said. “We barter the humanity of those we don’t think about… We can and must do more.”
The advocate also raised the idea that labor trafficking is not focused on because it is not sensationalized by the media. “Next time you hear the horrors of sex trafficking, please remember the children exploited for labor,” she added.
Renuka Zellars spoke next about her time as a 6-year-old servant in India. While there, she was cared for by other servants and allowed to leave the house. That all changed when the adult daughter of the family she worked for brought her to Texas to care for her children and do all the housework in the giant mansion they lived in. Zellars said she had her first panic attack at 11 when she asked to go to school and was rebuffed. She decided she wanted to return to India and searched for her passport, which had been taken from her. Zellars found it and ran to the mansion’s gate, where a woman who was passing by while on a walk helped her leave the property. That woman wrapped her in a blanket later — Zellars said this was the first human touch she experienced since leaving India.
The rest of Zellars’ story before she ended up being adopted by a woman in San Diego reveals the problem of not having laws and policies around labor trafficking. The 13th Amendment may have abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in 1864, but Texas in 1989 had yet to institute any consequences for people who enslaved others. The woman who trafficked Zellars was able to simply walk out of the police station to continue her career in law without issue because there was nothing to arrest her on. Meanwhile, Zellars was sent to juvenile hall because no one quite knew what to do with her.
Zellars is not alone in being a victim who was treated like a criminal. One of the accomplishments Atkins touched on was legislation treating all minors involved in the sex industry as victims of trafficking instead of criminalizing them for prostitution. For labor victims who were forced to work in illegal industries like human smuggling or drug dealing, they are still going to be jailed for their own abuse. They may also be less likely to attempt to escape or report crimes committed against them for fear of facing prosecution.
“If the criminal justice system looked at them as victims instead of criminals, more would be identified,” said Jamie Beck, the president and managing attorney of Free to Thrive. She brought up how homelessness, drug addiction and being undocumented are contributing factors for individuals who are forced into illegal labor but do not profit from that labor. She also discussed how people who are labor trafficked are at higher risk of being sexually assaulted; some face the same issues as people who are sex trafficked.
Beck urged against lumping all victims together, but she did point out a few commonalities many share, including their immigrant status and how many face psychological coercion and manipulation. In addition, she submitted that labor trafficking victims are more isolated from society than sex trafficking victims and are less likely to know they are victims.
“There is no one story of exploitation,” Beck said.
Currently, there is little outreach to victims from nonprofits; additionally, law enforcement depends on victims to identify themselves.
There is no proactive identification of victims, said Colleen Owens, the former senior research associate at the Urban Institute. She shared the results of one study she conducted which found 100% of victims she looked at were immigrants, and came from 29 origin countries. She found the top countries sending labor trafficking victims were located across Asia and in Mexico and the top industries targeted were domestic work, agriculture, construction, restaurant and janitorial work. Owens said in most crimes, you can point at criminals, “but in labor trafficking you have to point back at yourself.”
The only outreach to potential victims occurs in jails and prisons. Beck urged the commission to look at outreach to vulnerable populations. San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan echoed this later when she broached the idea of leveraging the State Department to educate immigrants using certain work visas on U.S. labor laws when they first enter the country.
In her presentation, Stephan explained that due to the difficulties in bringing up actual charges of labor trafficking, her team now focuses on finding money laundering, tax evasion and other money-related crimes labor traffickers commit because of their greed.
However, Nancy O’Malley, the district attorney of Alameda County, disagreed with Stephan’s approach, and said they shouldn’t rely on the Al Capone method of prosecution and ignore potential labor trafficking charges. O’Malley noted that there is a spectrum of labor trafficking from one individual exploiting another they see in a vulnerable position (such as when recent immigrants are forced into unpaid domestic work for a single household, like what happened to Zellars), to major operations exploiting many people at once (as was the case of dozens of men in Alameda County coerced to work in agriculture). She explained that in just 13 cases over the last several years, more than 700 victims were represented.
While the criminal justice aspect of addressing the human rights violation seemed the focus of the Nov. 21 hearing, some of the advocates who spoke urged public policy to change to better support victims with wraparound services after they are free from labor trafficking. Those who worked directly with victims complained that the specific criteria of funding barred many people from receiving necessary housing, food and care because they didn’t fit the narrow scope of each of those individual programs. Beck wanted a standardized screening and centralized services while others just asked for more flexibility in government funding.
There were many other ideas presented urging a multi-faceted approach to identify and combat labor trafficking. Commission member David Beier asked about the legality of naming and shaming businesses engaged in the practice to a site like Yelp. Others mentioned partnering again with labor unions, which used to be on the forefront of fighting human trafficking in California until the focus shifted to sex trafficking.
“Businesses and unions are disadvantaged by labor trafficking,” Beier said.
Educating the public and foster parents was also proposed, along with incentivizing prosecutors to bring labor trafficking charges.
The Little Hoover Commission will put together a report next year based on the findings of the public hearing and further studies on labor trafficking. Beier pointed out the recommendations of a previous report on the underground economy have yet to be implemented, so if labor trafficking is to be better addressed in the state Legislature, it will require coordination.
“They are victims who are thought to be criminals. That’s wrong,” Beier said. “It’s amazing we’ve gotten to a point where humans are treated like chattel, like property.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.