New England's agriculture, resort and hospitality industries are ripe for labor trafficking and the exploitation of immigrants, according to a study released Monday by Northeastern University and the Urban Institute.
At a busy outdoor café on an ordinary day, Northeastern criminal law professor Amy Farrell explains how labor human trafficking takes place unnoticed.
"Unless someone calls the police and says, 'I'm a victim of labor trafficking,' or there’s a labor trafficking situation, the police likely are not going to run into those cases," Farrell said. "Police are used to identifying individuals in commercial sex work. Police have no mechanism for being involved in labor regulation.”
Farrell, in concert with The Urban Institute, interviewed current and former labor trafficking victims. To protect their identities, the researchers did not point out specific locations where the interviews took place. But Farrell says New England is rife with human trafficking.
"The same kind of conditions that we studied would exist in many places in New England, both in agriculture but also in tourism and hospitality," she said. "We have a lot of foreign workers coming in on all different types of visas."
And among the most vulnerable are undocumented immigrants working in plain sight.
"In restaurants, in nail salons, hospitality workers in hotels," Farrell said. "Another place is landscaping crews or services where people come into your house for housekeeping where there may be only a single person who talks for the group. Those are situations that I believe do raise concern.”
The report cites settings where workers have little or no control over their personal lives. These include temporary employment agencies and closed ethnic settings, where workers speak no English and can only communicate through the owners.
“There’s always questions that arise when people are working somewhere don’t have the ability to speak English or seem like they’re deferential to someone else," said Farrell.
Contrary to widespread assumptions, reinforced by cinema, most labor trafficking does not occur at the point of a knife or a gun or any force whatsoever. The report states that victims are coerced, tricked or intimidated into working for free or for extremely substandard wages, coupled with often-dangerous living conditions.
“This is not what we see in the movies with people being kidnapped off the side of the street,” said Luis Cdebaca, the U.S. ambassador for human trafficking at the State Department, which has welcomed the new report. He says immigrants are easily exploited.
“Because the gains of the Civil Rights Movement brought so many black folks out of the field, out of the houses where they were abused, as maids or otherwise — by the '80s or '90s we were starting to see, whether it was Guatemalans or Mexicans or others, often in the same farms.”
Like sex trafficking victims, many of those trapped in coercive labor are indebted to human smugglers; debt that piles up when they are charged unfairly for items such uniforms, meals and especially housing.
“And what we found is that that is part of the degradation of people," Ddebaca said. "It keeps people in servitude. If things are too bad, you live in terrible conditions, you work long hours, you don’t have enough food — you’re sleep deprived. All these things make it less likely that you will do anything about your situation except to continue to get up the next day to go to work because you feel helpless and hopeless and you don’t have a lot of energy. And you’re malnourished, and you don’t know where you are and it's difficult for you to see a way to get help. So, in addition to it just being bad housing, poor food or a lack of transportation, these in fact keep people in conditions of servitude. They’re a tool of traffickers.”
Two-thirds of the people who carry out labor trafficking are men, most in their thirties and forties. They include both American citizens and foreigners who prey on people from their same ethnic group, according to the new report. Farrell says that Massachusetts and Rhode Island have the statutory powers to investigate labor trafficking. It’s just a matter of prioritizing, she says.
“It all requires money," she said. "It requires time and resources, but there’s been some good planning that’s starting."
Next week, the authors of this labor trafficking report will share their findings with Justice and State Department officials.