State labor agencies slow to coordinate with law enforcement on trafficking cases

Despite a strongly worded recommendation from a California-wide task force four years ago urging labor standards officials to look for signs of human trafficking, state and local investigators say there has so far been little coordination or direct follow-up with law enforcement or organizations supporting victims.

The task force, which was disbanded in 2007 but is reconvening throughout this spring, outlined the need to identify and rescue victims — as opposed to deporting them in the course of routine labor enforcement sweeps.

Representatives of the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement said they could not recall any recent cases in which a raid on a business for suspected violations of labor law led to a criminal investigation or prosecution for human trafficking. They also said they had not instituted a training program for state labor agents.

But California’s new labor commissioner Julie A. Su, who previously worked on some of the state’s most high-profile trafficking cases as an advocate at nonprofit organizations including Sweatshop Watch, said she intends to improve training of agents.

In 2010, the last year for which the state has reliable statistics, labor enforcement investigations of more than 13,000 businesses across the state yielded more than $2 million in fines on employers. That year several dozens of San Francisco Chinatown businesses drew attention for substandard working conditions. In raids that fall, the state labor standards office found 79 restaurants to be in violation of a variety of employment laws.

The raids followed a disturbing study of restaurant workers published by the Chinese Progressive Association and other groups. It found that 50 percent of workers received less than minimum wage, 20 percent worked more than 60 hours a week, 48 percent had experienced burn injuries, only 3 percent got employer-provided health care and 95 percent did not receive a San Francisco “living wage.”

Experts say human trafficking — the transportation and exploitation of workers through force, fraud or coercion — is hard to stop because it is so difficult to detect. Traffickers commonly conceal abuses of immigrant workers in plain sight, through intimidation and sometimes physical or sexual abuse. In some cases employers confiscate passports, threaten deportation, withhold wages, restrict movement or isolate victims from the community.

Dozens of such examples are documented in a 2007 report by the state task force, convened by the California Attorney General’s Office and the Crime and Violence Prevention Center on Human Trafficking. The report stressed that sex abuse was the tip of the iceberg in a much larger pool of trafficked and exploited labor.

In addition to training, the task force urged labor standards agencies across the state to “report such findings to their superiors for further investigation and service referral rather than potential deportation.”

Alden Pinkham, center program specialist and trainer for the National Human Trafficking Resource of the Polaris Project, which operates a 24-hour national call center, said isolation of immigrant workers from the rest of American society is a telltale sign of trafficking.

“One of the elements that would manifest when you work in a restaurant all day, and you live in housing provided by employers, and are transported from your work to your house, is that you have no meaningful opportunity to leave,” she said.

Another warning sign, according to Pinkham: Some employers charge for overseas transportation, so workers are perpetually indebted. Large debts for promised employment in the United States could be considered involuntary servitude, whether or not victims are even aware that they have been deceived or trafficked.

Workers’ lack of understanding of their own rights makes exposing such cases through labor violations difficult, but important.

Su, who was appointed as the California labor commissioner in April 2011, as a nonprofit organization advocate in 1996 worked on an infamous human trafficking case involving dozens of garment workers. In El Monte (Los Angeles County), 72 rural mostly female Thai workers were confined in apartment buildings, where they were forced to sew garments for less than $2 per hour, and worked for more than 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Their living quarters were infested with cockroaches and rats. Razor wire outside the compound deterred escape.

“Knowing that those are the kind of schemes they engage on,” Su said, “one of the priorities of mine and this administration is having in-depth investigations on site and off site. And off site is important because sometimes inside, workers are afraid to speak. So we specialize in doing quality inspections versus quantity inspections.”

Su said that developing a training program to help labor investigators recognize a broad range of criminal activity was her priority. She recently launched the Labor Commissioner’s Criminal Investigation Unit, made up of peace officers, which will help crack criminal trafficking cases related to labor law violations.

Su stressed the importance of having state labor investigators speak the language of the workers, scrutinizing payroll records, interviewing employers and making sure prospective workers recognize common scams. She said victims should understand that the state is on their side and that undocumented and trafficked workers will be helped, not deported.

“Immigrants should know that no matter how they arrived to the United States,” she said, “they do not check their humanity at the border.”

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