Combatting Labor Trafficking

October 20, 2021

The Little Hoover Commission’s work on labor trafficking was highlighted at two national conferences this month, a symposium hosted by Arizona State University on Wednesday and the 2021 National Labor Trafficking Conference last week.

At both events the Commission joined experts and advocates focused on combatting labor trafficking, a sinister crime that exploits innocent workers and traps them in oppressive situations. From farms and factories to beauty salons and private homes, individuals who endure labor trafficking are forced or coerced to work long hours in brutal conditions for little or no pay, often without a way to leave.

For too long, California’s anti-trafficking efforts have largely focused on addressing sex trafficking. The Commission emphasized that anti-sex trafficking work must continue, but also called on state leaders to take action to end forced labor. In a series of reports -- Human Trafficking: Coordinating a California Response, Labor Trafficking: Strategies to Uncover this Hidden Crime, and Labor Trafficking: Strategies to Help Victims and Bring Traffickers to Justice -- the Commission found that California knows very little about the extent of labor trafficking in the state, despite the state’s status as one of the nation’s top destinations for human trafficking. Preliminary data show that labor trafficking survivors show up for help across the state, and are men and women, young and old, and workers in a broad range of industries.

To make matters worse, key challenges prevent California from identifying and addressing this crime. Commissioner Dion Aroner, member of the labor trafficking study subcommittee, and Deputy Executive Director Tamar Foster detailed these challenges in their presentation at the 2021 National Labor Trafficking Conference last week:

  • California lacks leadership around anti-trafficking activities. No coordinated strategy exists to target human trafficking statewide, let alone to pursue labor trafficking specifically.

  • Labor trafficking often goes undetected. Not one state agency has a mandate to look for labor trafficking, and little to no training exists for those who might encounter the crime.

  • Various barriers make it difficult for survivors to access help. There is little research available to say which programs are most effective and how they are best delivered to survivors.

  • Labor trafficking prosecutions are few and far between. Investigations are especially costly and time-consuming, and there are no resources to help court personnel and prosecutors understand how to use California laws to pursue labor trafficking cases. 

Foster also discussed these obstacles at the 2021 Labor Trafficking Symposium on Wednesday, where she moderated a panel of experts, including Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, members of the Sex and Labor Trafficking Unit of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, and Panida Rzonca of the Thai Community Development Center, in a conversation about raising awareness around labor trafficking, finding and helping survivors, and developing innovative strategies to seek justice for survivors in California.  

At these conferences, Aroner and Foster shared key recommendations from the Commission’s reports that would help California – and leaders across the country – strengthen their response to labor trafficking:  

  • Create an Anti-Human Trafficking Council to coordinate efforts of all government agencies – state, local, and federal – and non-governmental organizations around efforts to combat all forms of human trafficking.

  • Empower state agencies to investigate labor trafficking crimes and develop training for key officials to recognize the signs of trafficking and respond appropriately.

  • Use national and state data and technology to proactively search for anomalies that might suggest the presence of labor trafficking in certain businesses, industries, or regions.  

  • Track civil and criminal enforcement activities and study outcomes to learn what is working with investigations and prosecutions and to identify and share best practices.

  • Make it easier for survivors to access help by creating a one-stop directory that includes all available state and local resources for trafficking victims.

Raising awareness about labor trafficking through conferences like these is a critical first step to better identify this crime and help survivors. The Commission’s recommendations for stronger government action against labor trafficking will enable leaders to respond more effectively and robustly to this heinous abuse.

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