Freedom Network Conference Highlights Challenges in the Fight against Labor Trafficking

On April 21st and 22nd, the Freedom Network hosted its 13th annual Conference in Washington, D.C. The Freedom Network USA is an alliance of anti-trafficking service providers that works with survivors of all forms of human trafficking to ensure that they have access to safety, justice and opportunity. The conference also brings together leaders from the government, law enforcement, faith-based communities, and experts from other areas who work to empower trafficking victims.

This year’s conference, titled “TVPA Past, Present, & Future: Elevating the ‘Human’ in Human Trafficking,” focused on successes, trends and issues, and recommendations for going forward. The conference emphasized the need to prioritize labor trafficking, which is often overlooked in the fight against human trafficking.

The field lacks a systematic understanding of labor trafficking. Experts from service providers, law enforcement, survivors, and prosecutors discussed challenges in identifying and prosecuting forced labor cases. Labor trafficking is often perceived as an infrequent occurrence. There is also a widespread misperception that trafficking requires physical violence, causing law enforcement and prosecutors to label cases of labor trafficking as wage theft or abuse. Increased training is necessary to effectively identify, investigate, and prosecute labor trafficking cases.

Other obstacles include limited resources and the fact that labor trafficking victims are frequently unprotected and/or criminalized. Traffickers often withhold passports and other documents from foreign national victims. And as with sex trafficking cases, successful prosecution of labor trafficking requires evidence that the perpetrator compelled the victim into servitude. Corroborating this is extremely difficult and relies heavily on victim testimonies. But given their trauma, trafficking victims are often reluctant to participate in prosecutions. When cases are successfully prosecuted, it can be even more challenging to get restitution.

Traffickers and their enablers must be brought to justice. Law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges must be trained to fully understand labor trafficking, including victim needs and applicable laws. Wire taps and financial investigations could uncover evidence to corroborate charges and decrease reliance on victim testimony. Law enforcement should also use financial investigations to track and secure funds for victim restitution. Lastly, victims should not be penalized for crimes they may have committed as a result of being trafficked.

For other recommendations on increasing labor trafficking prosecutions and their success rates, see Human Rights First’s blueprint on How to Disrupt the Business of Trafficking.

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Published on May 1, 2015

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