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Bosses beware: Human trafficking seeps into workplace

Chuck Crumbo
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While most people might think human trafficking involves kidnapping and forcing a person into prostitution, it also exists in other forms in the workplace.

These crimes victimize people who have been coerced to pay off a debt, physically assaulted by supervisors, or blackmailed and threatened to be turned over to immigration authorities if they refuse to work.

Many of these victims may be living in cramped and decrepit barracks at farms or sweat shops where they work the fields or run machines for hours on end. And then there are human trafficking victims who labor in plain sight, mowing neighbors’ yards, washing dishes and flipping burgers at restaurants, or making beds at hotels.

Around the world, 21 million people are victims of forced labor, according to a study by the International Labor Organization of the United Nations.
In most cases, an employer may not know the workers are victims of human trafficking, but that may not be much of a defense in the courtroom, says Columbia attorney Jacqueline “Jax” Pavlicek, of Burnette Shutt & McDaniel.

“It’s something that all employers should be aware of,” Pavlicek said.

Businesses need to care because South Carolina has some of the toughest laws regarding human trafficking, Pavlicek said.

In the Palmetto State, businesses can be held liable for human trafficking violations. State law also allows victims to bring lawsuits and recover attorney fees. And, if criminal charges are sought, the business owner knowingly violating the law could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and state and local agencies can suspend or revoke all business licenses and permits.

“Basically, the law states that there’s a book and it will be thrown at you,” Pavlicek said. “A company risks massive exposure to liability, losing business and government contracts, and damaged reputation.”  

Across the globe, human trafficking is a $150 billion a year industry involving 21 million victims at any one time.
In South Carolina, the annual report by the Human Trafficking Task Force of the Attorney General’s Office noted that in 2016 there were: 50 charges of Trafficking in Persons closed in the State courts. Of the 50 cases, 36 of those charges involved victims under the age of 18.

“Human trafficking is a law enforcement issue, but it’s also a community issue,” Richland County Sheriff’s Capt. Heidi Jackson of the agency’s Victim Services division said in a statement. “When we talk to victims … it’s like peeling back layers, and what’s at the center is often a young girl who was seeking love and attention, and this, unfortunately, was the only way she got it.”

Richland County also has pulled together a local anti-human trafficking task force involving multiple agencies. Started in 2015, the task force aims to raise public awareness, provides help and resources to victims, and assists law enforcement in prosecuting suspects charged with human trafficking offenses.

Federal enforcement
Anti-discrimination laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), are the primary legal weapon used in the fight against human trafficking, the agency said.

“When force, fraud, or coercion are used to compel labor or exploit workers, traffickers and employers may be violating not only criminal laws but also the anti-discrimination laws enforced by the EEOC,” according to an agency statement. 

Generally, employers with at least 15 employees are covered by EEOC-enforced laws (20 employees in age discrimination cases). Most labor unions and employment agencies are also covered. The laws apply to all types of work situations, including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages, and benefits, the agency says.

Trafficking cases often involve discrimination on the basis of national origin or race, the agency said on its website. Even when employees are legally brought into this country, employers may discriminate through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. 

In trafficking cases, it is not unusual for employers to maintain segregated jobs, pay unequal wages, or deduct unreasonable amounts from paychecks to cover rent, or fees for finding work, the agency added.

According to the American Bar Association, it’s critical for corporations to understand and responsibly manage their supply chains. 
“In-house counsel, compliance officers and outside business counsels must be knowledgeable and able to advise corporate clients on the responsibilities now required related to efforts eradicating human trafficking and slavery in their supply chains,” according to a recent American Bar Association report.

A number of recent state, federal and international laws now require certain companies to make a public declaration of what, if any, steps they are taking to combat modern slavery, according to the ABA report. 

“Increasingly other U.S. federal regulations and global initiatives are including provisions requiring corporations to address the issue of forced labor. Consequently, practitioners supporting corporate clients must be able to help these corporations in achieving transparency in their supply chains by identifying risk of forced labor, developing preventive measure, providing training to employees and suppliers and drafting appropriate contract provisions,” the ABA report said. 

Prey on foreigners
Human trafficking cases often involve foreign workers with a poor command of English, Pavlicek said. For example, one of the most notable human trafficking cases against a business involved a H-2B guest worker program visa bait-and-switch scheme, Pavlicek said.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Signal International recruited workers from India to repair damaged oil rigs and related Gulf Coast facilities. As part of the deal, the company and its recruiters promised green cards and permanent residency to the workers. 

However, the workers incurred substantial debts, paying recruiting fees up to $25,000 per worker, and had their immigration documents confiscated, Pavlicek said. Additionally, workers were forced to pay $1,050 a month to live in crowded and unsanitary labor camps.

Five workers sued Signal under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, accusing Signal of a number of violations including unlawful retaliation, fraud, false imprisonment, assault, battery, and intentional inflictions of emotional distress. 

A civil jury awarded damages on every claim, leading to a $12 million verdict to the workers. On top of that, Signal’s recruiter and immigration lawyer each were ordered to pay $900,000. In 2015, Signal announced that it was settling 11 similar suits for more than $20 million, Pavlicek said.
Signal was held responsible because it knew about the violations and failed to act, Pavlicek said. “These things were known up the management chain.”

Many large companies have incorporated anti-human trafficking statements into their policy handbook, Pavlicek noted.
“Being a responsible corporate actor is good for business,” she said. 

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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