October 25, 2019
Tabitha Woodruff, The Legal Aid Society of Columbus
Ohio has become a national leader in the fight against human trafficking thanks to the high number of sex trafficking cases prosecuted here. The Innocence Lost Task Force in Toledo, the Central Ohio Task Force, and other law enforcement agencies across the state have prioritized child sexual exploitation cases – but what about other types of human trafficking?
Labor trafficking is so rarely identified and prosecuted that many people assume that human trafficking on U.S. soil only involves coerced sex work. Occasionally, a case surfaces that shocks the conscience and reminds us that labor trafficking is hiding in plain sight all around us. Ohioans are only just beginning to learn how to identify and address labor trafficking in our local economies. If we become national leaders in fighting this type of human trafficking as well, it will be because Ohio business leaders and consumers strategically and deliberately diverted their money from products and supply chains that do not affirmatively verify that they meet basic labor standards.
In 2014, I worked with the Salvation Army of Central Ohio Anti-Human Trafficking Program to provide services to Guatemalans identified as labor trafficking victims in Marion, Ohio. The call from law enforcement surprised us and, as our team sorted blankets, soap and other material assistance for the survivors, we knew little about the facts of the case. Over the next four years, four defendants pled guilty to federal charges in a labor trafficking scheme that involved promising schooling and good jobs to Guatemalans as young as 14 years old; bringing them into the U.S., sometimes as unaccompanied minors; then forcing them to stay in uninhabitable trailers in Marion, Ohio and work 12-hour days at Trillium Farms. They were physically threatened and their paychecks were withheld to compel them to work the egg farm. Without immigration documents, victims risked deportation or detention in jail if they considered reaching out for help. They were trapped.
Similarly shocking cases, like a 2007 case where 40 Russian immigrants were forced to clean popular chain hotels throughout the Columbus area without pay, or where an Indian immigrant (who now serves on the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking) was forced to work in a Blue Ash restaurant, catch Ohio communities off guard. It makes us think – where did the eggs in my kitchen come from? Did I ever eat at that restaurant? Who cleaned my hotel room after I left? Were they paid?
The American Bar Association Corporate Social Responsibility Task Force and its Working Group on Model Business and Supplier Policies on Labor Trafficking and Child Labor recommend that businesses maintain effective communication with suppliers about labor practices. This can be as simple as checking to see if food retailers have Fair Food Agreements (like industry leaders Wal-Mart and Sodexo) or if a supplier’s workers are unionized. As more labor trafficking research emerges and we learn more about the issue, the Legal Aid Society of Columbus and other community leaders have begun serving victims of wage theft and other exploitive labor practices.