Guest Workers and Human Trafficking in California

The Christian Science Monitor recently explored the high volume of trafficked labor in California’s guest worker community. Focusing on a 2006 case that exposed an exploitative labor contractor, the article addresses the gaps in U.S. labor law that allow human traffickers to profit off the blood, sweat, and tears of foreign workers.

The case: Trans Bay Steel, a structural steel and fabrication company that provided upgrades to the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge. Seeking additional welders, Trans Bay contacted Yoo Taik Kim of Kota Manpower. Kim contracted out nine Thai guest workers to the company, telling Trans Bay management to submit paychecks to Kota Manpower for dispersal to the employees. But the men never saw the money.

After confronting Kim about nonpayment, the workers’ lives temporarily improved. But after renewed complaints several months later, Trans Bay began paying the men directly.

Soon thereafter, Trans Bay management cooperated with state authorities to put Kim behind bars and make right by the workers. California’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission informed Trans Bay that Kim had allegedly contracted 39 additional employees under the pretense of more welding work. They were instead forced to work in area restaurants, frequently for no pay. Furthermore, they were in debt due to thousands of dollars in “recruitment fees” for the opportunity to work in the United States.

The case was ultimately settled in 2006. Trans Bay paid out a $1 million settlement, paid back wages, and employed 22 of the men thereafter. Kim was convicted and sentenced to 41 months imprisonment.

Of the 130,00 foreign guest workers employed in California each year, 75 percent are hired through labor recruiters. Arriving from around the world, these men and women work in a variety of industries, often taking on crippling debt that is then used to control them. Frequently forced to sleep in cramped apartments or fenced labor camps, traffickers force them to work multiple jobs without chance of escape.

Under California’s newly passed Foreign Labor Recruitment Law, California businesses can only work with labor contractors who have registered with the state’s labor commissioner. The law also provides additional protections for foreign workers employed in the state, but will not go into effect until July 1st of this year.

California’s efforts should be applauded, yet there are still gaps in measures to halt labor trafficking across the rest of the country. The U.S. government adopted new regulations in March 2015 requiring government contractors to put certain policies in place to better protect vulnerable workers. One catch: the new regulations ban charging workers for recruitment, similar to Kim’s charging the 39 workers, but fail to define what precisely constitutes a recruitment fee (e.g. visa fees, transportation, medical expenses, etc.).

These regulations went into effect nearly a year ago but still lack a precise definition, making them nearly impossible to enforce. The U.S. government needs to work with stakeholders from both the business sector and civil society—and across other federal agencies—to solve this problem and better protect workers now.

For more information on all of Human Rights First’s recommendations to bankrupt slavery, read our blueprint: How to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking.

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Published on January 26, 2016

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