Labor Trafficking Victims in Southern U.S. Win Judgements Totaling Millions
By Lewis Golove
Over the past year, the Southern District Court of Mississippi has awarded default judgments in 38 separate cases to immigrant workers brought to the United States and forced to work as slaves by Royal Hospitality Services LLC, a labor services business based in New Orleans. Individual payments range from $67,000 to $77,999, totaling millions of dollars.
The plaintiffs, from Indonesia, Jamaica, Belarus, Turkey, and the Philippines, say that they were lured with false promises of job opportunities, and then ruthlessly exploited and abused.
Royal Hospitality and other recruiters submitted fraudulent information to the Department of Labor to obtain an excess of H-2B visas, which they then leveraged to entice and enslave plaintiffs and other victims. They led workers to believe that they would be employed and given housing, and that the prospective employers would pay their visa fees.
But when the workers arrived in the United States, they were told that they had to pay their own fees, which ranges from $5,000 to $8,000. When they were predictably unable to come up with the money, they were forced to sign loan agreements. As part of these agreements, workers were forced to sign and hand over 12 postdated checks and 12 blank checks and have relatives in their home countries cosign the loan. All this despite the fact that U.S. immigration law requires employers to pay for workers’ visas.
The workers were then shipped off to work for employers around the country who were not named on their visas and forced to do work completely different from what they had agreed to do. According to one worker’s complaint, they were paid well below minimum wage and housed in “filthy, unsecured, and totally bare trailer trucks that had no potable water, food, proper beds, or even mattresses,” for which they were charged exorbitant rates. Their passports and visas were withheld, and they were forced to continue working with threats of deportation and violence.
Sadly, cases like this one are all too common, even in the United States (see, for instance, the 2008 Signal case). An estimated 14.2 million people are victims of labor trafficking globally, approximately 68% of the total estimated 20.9 million human trafficking victims worldwide. However, sex trafficking cases are reported and prosecuted much more frequently than are labor trafficking cases. In the United States the vast majority of trafficking prosecutions are for sex trafficking crimes. Between 2005 and 2014, there were 173 labor trafficking cases filed by the DOJ and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, while 295 sex trafficking cases were filed.
While it is encouraging to see cases like Royal Hospitality, and to see survivors of labor trafficking receiving some justice, much work remains. First, the H-2B visa program needs greater oversight, as it is too easily abused by traffickers to recruit, coerce, and control victims. Second, law enforcement officials need to view human trafficking cases holistically. Many labor trafficking cases, such as this one, involve violations of a wide range of laws—immigration laws, civil rights laws, fair labor standards laws, even laws against kidnapping and assault. It is crucial that law enforcement officials understand these cases as part of a larger business of human trafficking and better train prosecutors to handle these complex cases. Also, having designated labor trafficking prosecutors on the federal and state levels would help to standardize investigation and prosecution of labor trafficking cases and ensure that more perpetrators are held accountable.
For more information on the criminal process of human trafficking, check out our interactive webpage, Understanding Modern Slavery.