A Democrat wants to crack down on employers that exploit workers. Will this help?

A farm worker puts grapes into plastic bags in Teviston on Oct. 21, 2021. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Fresno Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula introduced a new bill that would establish a labor trafficking unit within Cal/OSHA to investigate and prosecute people who force or coerce vulnerable people into jobs with little or no pay, often under unsafe working conditions.

The bill is cosponsored by the Western Center on Law and Poverty and the Sunita Jain Anti-Trafficking Policy Initiative at Loyola Law School.

“We must establish a Labor Trafficking Unit to help stop this cruel and inhumane treatment of workers who only want to make a living and provide for their families,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “For the first time, California would have a unit specifically assigned to investigate and prosecute unscrupulous perpetrators.”

The bill authors said that, while the state has primarily directed its efforts and attention to sex trafficking over the years, there has been no coordinated effort focused on labor trafficking.

If the bill passes, the unit would reside under the California Department of Industrial Relations as a subdivision of Cal/OSHA and would investigate and prosecute complaints alleging labor trafficking.

California first enacted anti-trafficking laws 15 years ago, yet no state agency currently has a mandate to look for labor trafficking.

“Despite some progress, California continues to have the highest number of victims of human trafficking in the U.S. over the last two decades,” said Joseph Villela, policy director at Loyola Law School’s Sunita Jain Anti-Trafficking Policy Initiative.

The unit would also take measures to ensure the prosecution process does not victimize survivors and that they are informed of services available to them.

The U.S. Department of Justice defines human trafficking as a crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services or commercial sex.

According to the Department of Industrial Relations, human trafficking is the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise and is an estimated $32 billion-a-year global industry.

The Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency in California, found that the state does not know the extent of labor trafficking in California because it doesn’t track this kind of data.

In an email statement to the Bee, Pedro Nava, chair of the commission, called the bill “a key step forward” for investigating labor trafficking crimes.

The commission estimates that labor trafficking survivors account for about 22% of the more than 14,000 human trafficking survivors who received state assistance from 2016 to 2019.

Preliminary data analyzed by the commission showed labor trafficking survivors who sought help include men and women of all ages working in a wide range of industries.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, domestic work, and agriculture work are the most common types of employment that see labor trafficking in California.

A fieldworker wearing a hat with the golden eagle, the official bird of Mexico, as he uses it to shield his face from the sun while he picks strawberries on Saturday, April 25, 2020.

And the pandemic may have made the problem worse.

A 2021 analysis conducted by the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that aims to prevent sex and labor trafficking in North America, found that labor trafficking in agriculture may have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report found that the proportion of reported labor trafficking victims with temporary agricultural work visas, or H-2A visas, increased from approximately 11% to 25%.

In November 2021, a federal court in Georgia found that a group of smugglers was fraudulently using the H-2A work visa program to smuggle foreign nationals from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras into the United States under the pretext of serving as agricultural workers. The workers were subject to brutal working and living conditions, and at least two died due to workplace conditions.

“People are being forced into labor trafficking right now in California — most coming from poverty conditions,” said Christopher Sanchez, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “The introduction of this bill sends a message that California will not tolerate the exploitation of workers and their families.”

What to do if you have information about labor trafficking

If you believe you have information about a potential trafficking situation, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 233733. Message and data rates may apply.

You can also visit their website to report a tip online.

Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocates are available 24/7 to take reports of potential human trafficking.

All reports are confidential and you may remain anonymous. Interpreters are available by phone.

The information you provide will be reviewed by the National Hotline and forwarded to specialized law enforcement and/or service providers where appropriate.

You can also report employers suspected of engaging in unlawful activity to the state’s Labor Enforcement Task force at: 855-297-5322, via email at letf@dir.ca.gov, or by visiting their website at www.dir.ca.gov. Spanish resources available.

Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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