State lawmakers eight years ago passed legislation making labor trafficking a state crime. But since then few have been charged of crimes related to trafficking and nobody has been convicted, according to the state Attorney General’s office.
On Thursday, a group of Boston University faculty and students and state officials unveiled a web-based application they hope will help law enforcement see the signs of problems and help victims find the right resources.
“Labor trafficking is happening in communities and across industries in our state, but it’s often hard to identify and significantly underreported,” said Attorney General Maura Healey at the event at the Boston University School of Law. “With more eyes and ears, we can shed light on this exploitation, bring traffickers to justice, and protect and assist survivors.”
The application dubbed, RESULT, for Recognize & Evaluate Signs to Uncover Labor Trafficking, is meant to be used by law enforcement and investigators on their phones to help them understand and identify the signs of trafficking. It is a collaboration between Boston University staff and students and the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General.
The app provides a series of questions related to signs of labor trafficking, including whether there is serious physical or emotional harm, withholding of documents or extortion. Under state law, an employer may be committing a crime if he or she engages in any of these behaviors to maintain a worker.
Julie Dahlstrom, director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program at BU’s law school, said she was concerned about the lack of law enforcement efforts against labor traffickers in Massachusetts and brought the problem to students to find solutions.
“One of the primary challenges in labor trafficking cases is victim identification,’’ said Dahlstrom at the BU event.
Law students worked with BU Spark!, a program based out of BU’s Hariri Institute for Computing. Ziba Cranmer, director of the program, said her students met regularly with BU law students starting last spring.
“If you don’t recognize the signs of a crime created then you will not pursue it,” she said. “You are not sensitized to the indicators.”
They then reached out to the state’s Attorney General’s Office who helped them understand the trafficking law and resources that are available for potential victims.
Cranmer said they wanted to create an app that was educational but not a tool to that investigators could use to gather evidence. “We were careful not to create an app that would collect data that would put victims at risk or could be hastily collected in a lawsuit,’’ she said.
The state plans to hold a webinar for municipal officials on labor trafficking on Nov. 19 to detail the RESULT app and instructions on how to use is.
Among those in attendance on Thursday was Catherine Piedad, a survivor of labor trafficking who consulted with students working on the project.
“When I first left my employer, I needed everything. I needed a place to live, clothing, and food. I had to re-build my life,’’ she said. “I wish I had had this app to help me.’’
Colby Lucas is a journalism student at Boston University.