Mary Lee A. Kiernan Labor trafficking hidden in plain sight
Human trafficking, also known as modern slavery, is an egregious crime against humanity. Modern slavery is a complicated web that uses illegal and legal entities to support its work. The International Labour Organization estimates there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally through forced labor, sex trafficking, child marriage and debt bondage that crosses international borders, cultures and industries. It is estimated to be a $150 billion illegal enterprise that is being fought with only $150 million in NGO funding. The financial opportunities are second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime. The numbers are staggering. At YWCA Greenwich, we have served trafficking victims in our Domestic Abuse Services Department.
Human traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Victims come from every nationality and socioeconomic status. While not always the case, poverty and immigration status play an important role in the vulnerability of a person who is trying desperately to build a better life. Traffickers convince victims to leave their homes and countries with the promise of good paying jobs or fulfillment of a debt. The reality is that victims are often faced with threats, physical harm, substandard living conditions and no means of escape from their abusers and the nightmare situations they find themselves in.
On Jan. 16, YWCA Greenwich and more than 35 community partners will honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a panel discussion focused on labor trafficking. It is estimated that 20.1 million people worldwide are in forced labor, including children, generating $51 billion in illegal profits resulting from forced economic exploitation, including domestic work, landscaping, health and beauty services, construction, agriculture and commercial cleaning services.
Since 2007, more than 40,000 cases of human trafficking, both sex and labor, have been identified in the US through the National Human Trafficking Hotline and BeFree Textline. While thousands of cases of trafficking are reported across the country each year, many go unreported as victims hide in the shadows. Victims don’t speak out because of language barriers, fear of their traffickers, or fear of law enforcement.
“At the Connecticut Department of Labor, we join local law enforcement to sweep businesses suspected of human trafficking or illegal treatment of employees,” said Resa Spaziani, Supervisor, Wage and Workplace Standards, “but even when we close down a business, it can quickly pop up in another place, and victims are often too frightened to speak with us.”
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services the major venues where labor trafficking takes place are domestic work, health and beauty services, traveling sales crews and restaurants/food service. In Connecticut, for example, nail salons and massage parlors do not require licensing and are not regulated by the Department of Health. Without any oversight, these businesses can easily underpay workers, maintain illegal working conditions and become fronts for other illegal activities.
According to Krishna Patel, General Counsel and Director of Justice Initiatives, Grace Farms Foundation, and a former Federal Prosecutor, “We can impact labor trafficking by making ethical consumer choices and reporting suspected traffickers.”
What exactly can consumers do to help stop labor trafficking?
Look for warning signs of abuse, such as appearing fearful, timid or submissive, among others.
Call local law enforcement by dialing 911 if you witness or suspect an instance of human trafficking or call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Trafficking victims, including undocumented individuals, are eligible for services and immigration assistance.
Learn how to become an ethical consumer through websites like Unchain.org or check out the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.
Volunteer with local community organizations that are working to stop trafficking.
On Wednesday, Jan. 16, join YWCA Greenwich and 35 local sponsors for a provocative discussion about labor trafficking. The event will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at YWCA Greenwich, 259 East Putnam Ave., Greenwich. The event is free and open to the public. Learn more at ywcagreenwich.org/fighting-modern-day-slavery. Space is limited, and registration is recommended.
Mary Lee A. Kiernan is the President and CEO of the YWCA Greenwich.