By Laura G. Burstein, Esq. / Dallas Bar Association

Originally published in October 2011

What comes to your mind when someone mentions human trafficking? Imagine the following scenario. One day your spouse casually mentions that she has befriended a sad young woman at the local park who nannies for a family in the neighborhood. The nanny speaks French to the children, and because she also speaks French, your spouse struck up a conversation with her. The parents of the young children brought the nanny to the U.S. from their home in Africa. After several conversations, the nanny began to talk about problems in the home where she works. She tells your spouse she works 15 hours each day caring for the children and then must cook and clean for the family; she is not allowed to leave the home except to take the children to the park; and lately she has been feeling poorly but her employers will not take her to a doctor. The girl is worried whether her parents are receiving the money for her work as her employers agreed when she took the job. She says that her employers are unkind and treat her rudely, but that she cannot leave because they have her travel and identity documents and she has no access to money to return home.

This story is a clear example of human trafficking. If that surprises you, it may be due to the fact that there are numerous misconceptions about what human trafficking actually is. The biggest myth about human trafficking is that it is obvious. It is not. It is a hidden crime that is occurring wherever there is money to be made and as such, it is an issue you may come across in either your personal or professional life. The key is learning how to recognize it. “Human trafficking” is simply a euphemism for modern day slavery and refers to the activity of one person holding another person in a situation of compelled service through the use of force, fraud or coercion.

The U.S. government defines human trafficking in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 and the Reauthorization Acts (TVPRA) of 2003, 2005 and 2008, in two separate contexts—sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking is defined as a situation in which commercial sex is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age. Labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery. (8 CFR §214.11(a)). The key to identifying human trafficking is determining whether the labor or services were performed as a result of force, fraud or coercion.

People are trafficked for numerous reasons and victims can be foreign-born (with or without legal status), U.S. citizens, men, women, children, and of all ages. Traffickers can be anyone: friends, neighbors, family members, business owners, organized crime, diplomats, governments, pimps, managers, gangs and overseas employment agencies. It is present world-wide and in all trade sectors, not just the sex trade.

Labor trafficking in the U.S. is more common than most realize, comprising the predominance of cases of human trafficking uncovered. While there are a multitude of different fact scenarios encountered, two recent cases located in Texas and neighboring states share remarkable similarities.

Both involved over 600 victims employed by two different manufacturing companies. Workers were recruited from Asia to keep labor costs low, and the employees were provided onsite housing and meals. The company housing was located adjacent to the worksite and severely restricted the workers’ movement and freedom. The facilities were fenced in and continuously monitored by guards. Workers were not allowed to exit the camp except during specified times and only if accompanied by a company guard. Travel outside the camp was limited to either the local superstore or a nearby church. The living arrangements were substandard, with 10 to 20 men sharing a room and single bathroom and sleeping in bunk beds. Although the workers were being paid, both the hourly rate and number of hours of work per week were substantially less than promised and the workers earned a fraction of what was promised. The workers feared leaving the job because each took out substantial loans exceeding $10,000 to cover the “visa processing fees” charged by the overseas recruiting company, which they believed would likely endanger their families should they fail to pay.

The million dollar question is what you, as counsel for one of these companies, should do upon learning these facts. You obviously have an obligation to advise your client as to the multitude of liabilities involved, however, further action clearly presents a significant ethical dilemma. What if one of the workers came into your office seeking help—would you know what relief is available and appropriate? Human trafficking is happening all around us. Recognizing the signs and knowing the elements of the crime can help you better advise your clients, or refer and assist victims.

For further information, or if you believe a person is being trafficked, please contact Laura G. Burstein at Mosaic Family Services, Inc. or attend the Pro Bono Week CLE on this topic on Wednesday, October 26, noon, at Belo. Mosaic Family Services is a local community-based nonprofit serving immigrant victims of crime, including victims of human trafficking.