Health officials and lawmakers are calling on Minnesotans to look out for exploited workers and offering suggestions on how to help.
A 114-page Labor Trafficking Protocol Guidelines report released Thursday emphasizes the need to help young people, especially those under age 24, who may not come forward or even know they are victims of a crime. Labor trafficking includes a variety of abuses — from physical harm to preying on undocumented immigrants — to force victims to work.
The Minneapolis-based nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights produced the report with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice and Minnesota Department of Health to expand on the state’s Safe Harbor public health approach to sex trafficking.
“Traffickers profit on exploiting human beings and they thrive when the system fails to hold them accountable for their crimes,” said Robin Phillips, executive director of the Advocates for Human Rights.
Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, joined advocates and health officials in rolling out the report at the Capitol, linking it to a legislative push this session to toughen penalties against employers found guilty of wage theft.
Pinto, a Ramsey County prosecutor, previously helped establish Minnesota’s Safe Harbor guidelines that shifted the state’s approach to youths sold for sex — treating them as victims instead of criminals.
Pinto called Thursday’s labor trafficking guidelines “another step on that journey of expanding our state’s focus … and recognizing what unifies any kind of trafficking is that someone who has power is taking advantage of someone who has vulnerabilities.”
The report includes checklists and plans for responding to labor trafficking, noting that victims are likely to have experienced trauma. Laura Garlock, a social worker and program manager at the International Institute of Minnesota’s anti-trafficking program, said such victims may have trouble sharing their experiences.
“Trafficking inherently involves so much coercion and control that ensuring that survivors are able to make decisions for themselves is a critical component of healing,” Garlock said.
Madeline Lohman, one of the report’s authors and a senior researcher for the Advocates for Human Rights, said she has encountered roughly 80 victims from across industries like agriculture, home care and construction.
But supporters said Thursday that it is tough to get data on the crime in Minnesota because of underreporting from victims who may be from vulnerable immigrant or youth communities, or who may not even recognize what is happening to them.
“Does the person appear trapped? Are they afraid of their employer?” Lohman said, describing signs of labor trafficking. “If they leave the job, do they fear something serious will happen to them or to their family beyond loss of income — and does that something bad stem from the actions of the trafficker?”
The guidelines are also divided into sector-specific chapters with suggestions for law enforcement officials to better investigate and prosecute labor trafficking — something advocates on Thursday suggested could be aided by new wage theft legislation this session.
“This bill gives people avenues to get wages back in situations where they may not otherwise be able to do it and this brings them into contact where they can uncover the trafficking behind the wage theft,” Lohman said.