Oregon joins 18 other states in deploying task force to combat labor trafficking
State agencies, foreign consulates, lawyers and advocates join together to deal with growing labor and human rights violations in the state
Oregon, which has about 20,000 acres devoted to onions like this field in Malheur County, is the third biggest producer in the country. (Courtesy of Malheur Enterprise)
Ernesto Hernández spent 15 of his last 20 years in the U.S. working with the Mexican Consulate in Portland on human trafficking issues. He visited farms where workers slept 20 to a room, had little to eat. He encountered workers who had wages stolen and hours of overtime go unpaid.
He says it’s gotten worse.
“Labor trafficking is going to be difficult to end because it’s a good business,” he said of the money it makes for some employers in the state. “The only chance we have is the victims coming forward themselves. So when they have cases, we have to support them until the last stages of the process.”
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum saw an opportunity for the Oregon Department of Justice to do just that, and to work with others across the state to track cases, launch investigations and ramp up enforcement alongside the federal government. In early 2020 she and a group of legislators, advocates like Hernández, immigration attorneys, representatives from five state agencies and consulates from several countries gathered to discuss the growing issue of labor trafficking in Oregon.
Rosenblum and the Justice Department had been hearing more reports of forced and coerced labor, especially coming from cannabis farms in Southern Oregon, and from construction sites.
Hernández, who now works with the nonprofit Northwest Family Services, said many of the cases he’s worked on in recent years involved labor trafficking on cannabis farms. For victims, reporting the crimes typically comes down to finding a local advocacy group, phoning a national hotline or calling the police.
The labor trafficking task force formed last year got two meetings in until the coronavirus derailed them. Then forest fires, then several special legislative sessions. Now, nearly a year-and-a-half later, they’re convening at last to propose legislation that can combat labor trafficking.
By doing so, they join 18 other states with task forces that encompass labor trafficking.
Attorney General’s Labor Trafficking Taskforce Roster:
Oregon Department of Justice
Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie
Representative Lily Morgan, House District 3
Representative Anna Williams, House District 52
Representative Pam Marsh, House District 5
Amanda Kraus, Oregon Senate Democrat Caucus Office
Oregon Immigration Group
Catholic Charities Legal Services
Castro Monroy Group
Oregon Human Development Corporation
Unite Oregon, Rogue Valley Chapter
Marandas Sinlapasai Garcia, LLC
NW Carpenters Union
U.S. Attorney’s Office – Portland
Benton County District Attorney
Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office
Portland Police Bureau
Oregon State Agencies
Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries
Oregon Department of Agriculture
Oregon Occupational Safety and Health
Oregon Department of Human Services
Oregon Liquor Control Commission
“Most people don’t know what labor trafficking looks like,” says Kimberly McCollough, legislative director at the Justice Department. She said when people hear about trafficking, they think of human smuggling or sex trafficking.
“We need to get a clearer picture of how it’s occurring across the state. We don’t have good data,” McCollough said.
There were 1,236 labor trafficking violations nationwide reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline in 2019, the most recent year for which the data is listed. The number of labor trafficking violations in Oregon is unknown, but will be part of data the task force seeks to collect going forward. The National Center reported 132 human trafficking cases in Oregon in 2019 following calls to its hotline.
McCullough said the Oregon task force knows labor trafficking is most common in agriculture and construction, but also involves restaurants, factories, and domestic and janitorial work. McCollough said it also happens within religious communities, citing one case the task force discussed of a group of monks who were brought to Oregon, forced to work and had their passports taken.
Trafficking often involves “document servitude,” where people who come to the U.S. to work or perform services are falsely promised visas and residency permits or have their identification taken from them. Rosenblum saw the task force as especially important in the aftermath of the Trump administration when, McCollough wrote via email, that it became clear, “there was a need to increase our focus on labor trafficking, as so many undocumented workers felt they could not complain of working conditions for fear of being deported.”
One challenge will be earning victims’ trust. Many people who are forced or coerced into work, and who have their rights violated at work, are undocumented in both Oregon and nationally. Coming forward could mean dealing with police and federal immigration officials.
“The people trafficking them tell them the story about getting help,” said McCullough, “that, ‘You’re going to be deported. You’ll face legal action.’ It’s extremely difficult to get people to come forward against traffickers.”
She said that can be addressed by raising awareness about the visas available for victims of human and labor trafficking, such as the T visa that allows victims to stay in the U.S. for up to four years legally, and apply for permanent residence. The U visa that allows victims of criminal activity to stay in the U.S. for a set period if they help law enforcement investigate the crimes.
The task force aims to have policy and budget recommendations ready for the 2023 Legislature. Hernández said an important initiative the task force and state is getting definitions of labor trafficking out to people working across industries so they know if they’ve been a victim of trafficking and what rights they have.
“It’s a thin line between labor exploitation and labor trafficking,” he said. Hernández recalled visiting farms and speaking to farmworkers who realized afterwards that they had not been merely exploited at work, but had been victims of trafficking.
“We struggle because we need awareness,” he said. When it comes to sex trafficking, “You see advertisements that say: ‘Have you been trafficked? Know the signs,’” Hernández said. “Labor trafficking is much more invisible.”
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