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‘It happens in Greenwich:’ Experts weigh-in on labor trafficking

January 17, 2019

GREENWICH — Human trafficking is often hidden in plain sight — and as one expert said, “It happens in Greenwich.”

In fact, the highest number of human-trafficking cases in the state are found in Fairfield County, lawyers, government officials and nonprofit leaders said at a panel discussion held Wednesday night at YWCA Greenwich.

Multiple Greenwich businesses have been found to be involved in trafficking and wage theft in sweeps conducted by the Connecticut Department of Labor, and victims of trafficking have received services from the YWCA Greenwich. Connecticut isn’t immune to the silent scourge of modern day slavery seen around the world, experts say.

“People say it doesn’t happen here,” said Resa Spaziani, supervisor of wage and workplace standards for the state Department of Labor. “I assure you, it happens in Greenwich.”

Trafficking victims are often forced into work through physical coercion or threats, but also by psychological manipulation, said Luis C. deBaca, lawyer and former U.S. State Department ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons.

“Trafficking doesn’t mean the person didn’t want to do that work,” deBaca said. “Maybe they come to take that job, but they get stuck in the cycle of debt bondage and wage theft. Then they receive threats to their family if they try to leave and it’s no longer voluntary.”

In Connecticut, construction sites, nail and massage salons, and restaurants are the businesses most likely to see trafficking, Spaziani said. Car wash employees and other low-wage workers are also prone to trafficking.

Fairfield County — and especially Greenwich — is an epicenter for trafficking, Spaziani said, because of its proximity to New York City.

“(Trafficking victims) meet in New York and they get on bus usually around 7:30 a.m.,” she said. “And Greenwich and Stamford are easy commutes.”

After working a 13-hour day, the group is bused back to the city, Spaziani said.

“Many times the employer will have a residence, and he will have eight, nine, 10 people in a two bedroom or a one bedroom,” she said.

Newly elected State Rep. Jillian Gilchrest (D-18), former chair of the state’s Trafficking in Persons Council, said the human trafficking found in nail salons and illicit massage parlors in Connecticut is “of grave concern.”

“We are the only state in the U.S. that does not license nail technicians,” she said. “That makes us a hotbed for human trafficking.”

Gilchrist this week introduced a bill that would require licensure of all nail technicians in Connecticut.

Illicit massage businesses are often the “seedy places you see in strip malls,” she said.

“We know what that looks like, and it resembles typically a woman of Asian descent who is trafficked from Flushing, Queens, and is moved two to three times a week across Connecticut to different illicit massage businesses,” she said. “We’ve all seen businesses like this before, but how often do we ask ourselves, ‘Who is that individual inside there? Who is she and how to we help her?’”

Child labor trafficking cases are also common in the state, Spaziani said, but offenders are rarely prosecuted or convicted.

“We get child cases in construction and restaurants and generally, it’s a relative putting the to work to help the family,” she said. “Horrifically, the judge doesn’t think that it’s a big crime and throws it out. We have warrants for child labor in many courts that aren’t getting signed right now.”

Eradicating the problem

Anyone who suspects they have observed trafficking is encouraged to report it to the state Labor Department immediately, Spaziani said.

“When you’re having your nails done, ask, ‘What are you getting paid? Are you getting paid?’” she said. “People are willing to talk to you about that.”

Demato said that holding companies accountable on social media can help consumers become more aware of where the products they buy come from.

“We’re finding there to be a growing demand from younger consumers of publishing and sharing information on websites showing true evidence of what the company is doing,” she said.

In tight fiscal times for the state, Gilchrest said it may be a difficult fight to convince other legislators that bills aimed to fight trafficking should be a priority.

“We as community need to step up and say this is priority,” she said.

An estimated 40.3 million people are trapped in modern slavery in the world today, Krishna Patel, general counsel and justice initiative director of Grace Farms in New Canaan and former federal prosecutor, told the large crowd. Human trafficking is the largest criminal industry worldwide, with $150 billion in criminal proceeds and $354 billion worth of consumption in the G20 countries.

Globally, the fishing, chocolate and garment industries are the most impacted by trafficking, said Patel.

“Slavery is in every possible supply chain,” said Divya Demato, CEO and co-founder of GoodOps, a company that specializes in auditing supply chains for workers’ rights violations.

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