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Human trafficking: Often invisible, it requires constant vigilance

Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash
In our midst are people being taken advantage of — they might be janitors in our offices or maids at our hotels, young people in our community, women in low-wage jobs in our stores, or workers in our fields.

Human trafficking is a significant but often invisible problem. Often in plain sight, yet unseen, young girls and boys as well as adults are frequently trafficked for labor or sex, right here in Minnesota and the rest of the U.S.  

Robin Phillips
Robin Phillips
Miguel is typical, if indeed any of these stories can be typical. Along with other young men, he was recruited from his home country for a job in the U.S. His employer obtained a work visa for Miguel and other young men, and promised a fair wage for work. Once here, though, his employer refused to pay Miguel and threatened to call police and immigration authorities if he complained. Despite the threats Miguel contacted immigration officers, but when they came to investigate, they asked his employer to be the interpreter.  

After many months and threats, Miguel eventually got help. Others are not as fortunate, sometimes trapped in these situations for years. Young girls are particularly vulnerable, as they are often trafficked for both sex and work. Tied into this are parallel crimes and abuses: unsafe working conditions, compelled criminal activity, identity theft, and sexual assault.

Because of our collective vigilance, Minnesota has been at the forefront of efforts to uncover and battle human trafficking. My organization, The Advocates for Human Rights, has been working on human trafficking issues more than a decade. Labor and sex trafficking arrests increase when authorities are better trained to recognize it, suggesting the problem is underreported and undercounted. Among other efforts, we have trained more than 500 Minnesota police, prosecutors, employment enforcement agencies, and other professionals to identify and combat trafficking. And in January we published a set of protocols that can help communities throughout Minnesota more quickly identify and respond to instances of labor trafficking.

But, there’s still much to learn about trafficking. Investigative journalists Andrés Cediel and Daffodil Altan, among others, have kept watching and listening. Their recent PBS/Frontline film, “Trafficked in America,” shines a light into the dark corners of the world of trafficking. In 2015 Cediel looked at the rampant sexual assault in the janitorial industries. A major segment of that PBS/Frontline film, “Rape on the Night Shift,” investigated conditions here in Minnesota. Cediel will be the keynote speaker at The Advocates for Human Rights’ annual awards dinner on Thursday, June 20.  We invite the community to join together that evening and learn.

In our midst are people being taken advantage of — they might be janitors in our offices or maids at our hotels, young people in our community, women in low-wage jobs in our stores, or workers in our fields. We can combat trafficking when we look out for each other, when we see what is now invisible to us. It is part of creating a more just, humane, and safe Minnesota for all.

Robin Phillips is the executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Barbara Klaas on 05/18/2019 - 06:56 am.

    Good article but we need specific ideas of what to look out for and who yo contact.

    • Submitted by Madeline Lohman on 05/21/2019 - 03:29 pm.

      Thanks for your interest in learning the indicators – I’ve included a list in a comment below. It was quite long, so I just posted it once!

  2. Submitted by Misty Martin on 05/18/2019 - 08:31 am.

    Robin: What are the signs to look for so a person could spot that someone was being used in this way? Human trafficking is so heartbreaking and evil.
    I never supposed that janitors or maids could be used in this assault on human beings.

    • Submitted by Madeline Lohman on 05/21/2019 - 03:30 pm.

      Thanks for your interest in learning the indicators – I’ve included a list in a comment below. It was quite long, so I just posted it once!

  3. Submitted by Mark Voorhees on 05/20/2019 - 07:52 am.

    A couple of years ago I listened to police officers talking about prostitution and the two most highly run areas in the metro were the MOA and the airport. Airport? I was shocked!
    But like the other two posters, I would also like to know how to spot trafficking. Are there tell-tale signs?

    • Submitted by Madeline Lohman on 05/21/2019 - 03:30 pm.

      Thanks for your interest in learning the indicators – I’ve included a list in a comment below. It was quite long, so I just posted it once!

  4. Submitted by Madeline Lohman on 05/21/2019 - 03:28 pm.

    I work with Robin at The Advocates on improving our state’s response to labor trafficking. There are definite indicators that someone may be a victim of labor trafficking but there are a few caveats to keep in mind.

    First, the goal of identifying labor trafficking is to alert someone that you’ve identified a suspicious situation. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is a great number to call if you think you are witnessing human trafficking: 1 (888) 373-7888. They can connect you with the right law enforcement or anti-trafficking service provider in your area. You can also call The Advocates for Human Rights at (612) 341-9845 to reach our legal services team.

    Second, it can be very dangerous for the victim to talk to someone since they may be constantly observed by the trafficker. If someone comes to you for help, you can connect them with resources through the Hotline, but if you are just a witness to a potential trafficking situation and there is no immediate threat to the victim’s safety or life, do not intervene. You can call the Hotline as a third party and they can give you advice on what to do, without exposing the potential victims to harm.

    Third, the signs of trafficking can be present in non-trafficking situations. Trafficking is complex to identify, so you can’t assume a situation is trafficking just because indicators are present. However, you can assume it is worth notifying someone and offering to connect the potential victim to help.

    Here are some of the key signs:
    -Someone working unusually long hours
    -Someone living at the same place that they work, especially if the living situation is substandard
    -The employee is working with untreated injuries or illness
    -The worker is not dressed appropriately for the weather or wears the same clothes all the time
    -The worker is confused/can’t explain where they live, how long they’ve been there, what city they are in
    -Someone has to pay back money to their employer or a labor broker
    -The worker is with someone who speaks for them or who seems to be monitoring what they say
    -The worker seems afraid to answer questions

    We have a card that workers can use to determine if they are a victim of trafficking – if you are talking to someone, you can also listen for these indicators. You can find it here: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/labor_trafficking_self-assessment_card.html

    We also provide training for organizations and communities that want to improve their response to labor trafficking. Please contact me at mlohman@advrights.org if you are interested in seeing if the training is appropriate for you!

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