Labor trafficking and labor exploitation are growing international scourges. And although the most egregious abuses are concentrated in countries without strong labor laws or enforcement, it happens here, too.
Consider the case of Lili Huang, the Woodbury woman charged in July with five felonies, including labor trafficking, false imprisonment and assault after she allegedly abused her nanny from China.
Fortunately awareness is rising, thanks in no small part to a new report issued Tuesday by the Advocates for Human Rights, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit with an admirable legacy of pressing for human rights around the world.
The report, “Asking the Right Questions: A Human Rights Approach to Ending Trafficking and Exploitation in the Workplace,” was funded by the Minneapolis Foundation. In addition to describing the experiences of victims, the report optimistically speaks of the “opportunity” the state has to better identify and fix the problem.
Labor trafficking occurs when an employer uses coercive methods, such as threatened or actual violence, debt, fraud or blackmail, to force victims to work. Labor exploitation does not entail the same degree of control, but it can involve wage theft and other insidious ways to cheat workers. Both practices are immoral and illegal. And although there is a clear sense of the growing significance of the problem, quantifying abuses is difficult because the figure depends on prosecutions.
The report makes a number of recommendations, most specifically for enforcement agencies and policymakers but also some for community-based organizations that advocate for populations most vulnerable to abusive labor practices.
Consumers can play a role, too, especially when hiring domestic workers or caregivers. Some other occupations, such as seasonal farm work, require more robust monitoring and enforcement and, when applicable, prosecutions. In general, better enforcement is needed — not new laws — and that may require more support for labor agencies that are tasked with auditing labor practices.
“It’s not a new issue; it’s something we’re thinking about in a different way,” Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director at the Advocates for Human Rights told an editorial writer. “And that is whether it’s OK for workers to work without dignity. Whether it’s OK for us to worry about the overall price, as opposed to what’s happening to each individual worker in our state. And what is the responsibility that we have collectively to make sure that exploitation and trafficking do not happen here.”
The collective responsibility is key. Minnesotans can act individually as well as support public policymakers, enforcement agencies and workers-rights advocates in the fight to end labor trafficking and exploitation.