Labor trafficking difficult to distinguish in Alameda County

2015 redesigned Pioneer logo.

Tam Duong Jr.

2015 redesigned Pioneer logo.

Uriel Torres,

Labor trafficking is difficult to combat for various reasons. It is hard to identify, since victims might be reluctant to speak out and it is a person to person crime. Even still, labor trafficking is everywhere. At a glance, it might appear to be a regular construction site, or just a regular busboy at a restaurant, or a cleaning lady at a motel, but no one would know there could be so much more happening in a person’s life.

This in a nutshell is the shared opinion of social workers, sociologists and human trafficking specialists.

On Oct. 3, Ruby’s Place, a non-profit organization committed to helping victims of different types of abuse, was recognized by the city council of Hayward. Ruby’s Place, having the week before opened a shelter for men who specifically endured trafficking is just one of the outreach efforts to combat labor trafficking in Alameda County which includes Hayward, Union City, Fremont and Newark.

Ruby’s Place offers victims reprieve, if only for a few months, in order to regain their footing. Granting housing, mediation and therapeutic and case management services among other things. Ruby’s Place serves a disenfranchised minority facing hunger and destitution.

“Labor trafficking is domestic servitude, it’s people who are forced to work with little or no pay, to live in deplorable conditions,” commented Vera Ciammetti, the executive director of Ruby’s Place. “It’s modern day slavery.”

Victims of labor trafficking are often reluctant to come forth and give voice to their situation out of fear of the stigma and abuse they might encounter. Social workers are duty bound not to release the names due to privacy privileges afforded to victims. Nevertheless, the fact that Ruby’s Place has opened a facility completely dedicated to male trafficking is an indication of the importance of the issue.

However, it would appear that a vast majority of the population still aren’t even aware that labor trafficking is occurring.

The Pioneer spoke with Tania Garcia, the Human Trafficking Outreach Specialist at Ruby’s Place. Tania works on case management for victims of labor trafficking as well as connecting with other agencies to increase awareness of labor trafficking.

“Labor trafficking is rising faster than sex trafficking,” said Garcia. “I know that a lot of people, when they hear human trafficking they think women and sex trafficking. I think that is because there has been a lot of campaigning, advocating and awareness around the issue of sexual exploitation and I think that the idea of labor trafficking is still a little bit of a gray area for people to understand.”

According to figures provided by the International Labour Organization, “Out of the 24.9 million people trapped in forced labour (worldwide), 16 million people are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction or agriculture.”

Daniel Roisman, the deputy district attorney for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, suggests that victims are blackmailed into silence. “A huge amount of is a lot more subtle,” said Roisman. “There’s a lot of fraud. The systems of isolation can be very subtle, most of it doesn’t have a lot of physical evidence to it because a lot has to do with the interpersonal relationship between the trafficker and the trafficked.”

As a result, labor trafficking is one of the most difficult crimes to distinguish. Roisman continued, “Labor trafficking victims tend to be among people who distrust the police. They’re drawn from populations where part of the system of control includes a fear of the police, not just a lack of trust but actually good reasons to avoid the police such as deportation.”

Labor trafficking is everywhere one might expect to find it. Usually focused on manual labor of some type. “You can find labor trafficking in restaurants, domestic work and construction, which we do see a lot of here in Alameda County.” commented Garcia.

She went on to say, “Trafficking in general, under US law, consists of three components: force, fraud and coercion. The coercion part is a little difficult at times because it relies on the psychological impediment that someone is creating; language barriers, fear of deportation are all things that might prevent someone from dealing with authorities when in fact there are immigration relief options for survivors of labor trafficking, but they don’t know.”

According to a study conducted by Polaris that pulled from 30,000 reported exploitation and trafficking cases, “73 percent of victims are male, 72 percent have had their wages taken or withheld from them and 68 percent experience economic abuse of some kind.” A similar study by the Urban Institute reported, “71 percent of labor trafficking victims entered the United States on a lawful visa.”

When interpreting the number of cases, a person might find it difficult to determine if labor trafficking as a whole is increasing or decreasing in rate. Roisman stated, “Well we’re finding more. I think a big part of that is looking for them. Whether or not, as a whole it’s gone up or down, I don’t think we can tell. I don’t think the system for finding these cases is sufficient. As the systems for detection improve, it may look like there is more of them, but really it’s just you’re getting better at looking for them. They may be even going down over a period, but you’d still be finding more.”

Recruits come from all over the world, primarily Southeast Asia and countries south of the US border. The manner in which foreign nationals are recruited differs from country to country.

Garcia knows this better than anyone. “There is a difference in how they are recruited [different foreign nationals]. I’ve had clients from the Philippines who came on a visa, on a H2B Visa [administered to foreign nationals for work], but they are recruited by ‘companies’ that will recruit in the Philippines with promise of wages, housing, etc. The companies will help pay for their trip and documentation but then they hold on to the documentation, promising a green card soon after that never comes. So fraud, they were told one thing and once they get here it’s completely different.”

What happens more often than not is someone will be intrigued by the opportunity of making thousands of dollars in a supposed job opening in America, they’re then recruited by someone and brought over. Of course needing a place to stay, food and transportation. The recruits are then provided for by a host with a spare room or a garage who may also provide food or rides to work.

The recruits then have deductions taken from their paycheck for “services” rendered leaving them with only a fraction of their original pay and not nearly what they had been promised. If a recruit were to pull out of the arrangement, they could be threatened with deportation as those who had previous identification might hand it over to a third party, again with promise of something like a green card, which never materializes.

“So survivors aren’t always undocumented. It’s the way they’re brought here with fraud, the way they are kept here with coercion. Recruiters saying, ‘I have your documents, if you don’t work for me, I’m calling the police.’ And fear of deportation is a crime under California State law. If someone threatens deportation in a work environment it is a crime,” remarked Tania.

When asked what would be a step in the right direction towards solving the issue, Daniel Roisman responded, “I think part of what needs to happen is we need to change the message for the undocumented population. The entire rhetoric in society about undocumented populations is pretty frightening. Documented or undocumented frankly, it puts them at risk for all sorts of crimes.”