By Koula Glaros-King, CLA Attorney

Our world is too full of predators and opportunists. The acts of one are horrible crimes, while the acts of the other are considered clever “good business.”

But when does taking the benefit of someone’s unpaid labor become the crime of trafficking in humans?  

And when is it just a poorly negotiated or unenforceable agreement to do something for pay?

Answers to questions like these matter because human trafficking is nothing more than slavery, which we abolished almost two centuries ago.  Identifying and prosecuting it and providing restorative resources to victims matters.  

Human trafficking, for sex or labor services, occurs in plain sight every day in our own communities. It victimizes people of all ages and all backgrounds. Traffickers often further enforce their control by making their victim perform illegal services. As a society, we can easily recognize trafficking in illegal enterprises like theft and fencing rings, prostitution, and drug trafficking. But certain legal businesses are also particularly fraught including restaurants, farms and food processing plants, construction services, trucking companies, nail salons, and child and elder care facilities. There are countless other arrangements of this involuntary servitude, this loss of freedom.

Sadly, our society struggles to identify human trafficking and is painfully slow to protect its victims. We must recognize this “modern-day slavery” for what it is and refuse to accept the continuing victimization of our vulnerable families and neighbors. The primary dividing line lies in the level of self-determination and control retained by the worker who is providing their labor.  

Consider these all too common scenarios based on real cases uncovered by law enforcement and victim advocates.  

Is the worker old enough to agree?
The boyfriend tells his 16 year old girlfriend he doesn’t love her unless she obeys and sleeps with his friends. There is no such thing as “child prostitution.” Victims who are not yet 18 cannot legally agree to sex work. This is human trafficking.

Was the worker forced, threatened, or tricked into this work arrangement?
The construction foreman threatens the worker with deportation or kidnapping of his children unless he obeys. Fishermen “recruited” from their village by shipowners who threaten to harm their village if they leave the boat. The homeless veteran was promised a place to sleep, but only if he steals for his new roommates. A talent agent convinces families to send their children to his choir with hollow promises that he would provide the young singers a good education. A groom comes to a new country to marry, but his fiancee now refuses to be wed and forces him to sleep on the floor and take care of her farm. A lonely pensioner is befriended by a young couple who move in, take his money, and force him to support them.  These are human trafficking.

Can the worker change their mind and leave?
The boss seizes his housekeeper’s personal papers and monitors her with cameras 24-7. This worker cannot leave the house or talk to anyone for years and her family didn’t know she was still alive. A recruiter filled his van with hungry undocumented “day-laborers” for a few hours work for cash, then locked them away for months in his meth processing lab. These are human trafficking. 

Does someone take and keep everything the worker earns?
The dog breeder promises workers he isolated on his property to pay and reimburse their costs after he sells puppies they raised for him.  The nail stylist always has someone monitoring them and never exchanges any conversation with the client. The warehouse manager knows their family, so they can’t complain about their living conditions or lack of pay.  These are human trafficking.

Federal and state laws can provide protection and restitution to human trafficking victims to make them whole. For the worker, this can include obtaining pay they should have received and a protection order against their traffickers. It can mean access to drug and alcohol dependency services, trauma and mental health care, and possible assistance with legal status and public benefits. It may even be getting a fresh start with records cleared from criminal charges committed for the trafficker.  For the trafficker, a conviction can mean long incarceration and seizure of assets, especially properties acquired through trafficking. 

Locally and across our state, much has been done to bring awareness to the issue of human trafficking and help those who fall prey. There are many local collaboratives composed of community volunteers, educators, medical providers, victim advocates, and law enforcement all working to help those who have been victimized and to prevent more harm to others. For a collaborative near you, click this searchable map. In the justice arena, several municipal courts have begun restorative holistic initiatives. For example, Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Renee DiSalvo developed this area’s first Ohio Supreme Court Specialized Docket for Victims of Human Trafficking, named GRACE (Growth Restored through Acceptance, Change, and Empowerment)

We can never learn too much or be too aware of the very real problem of human trafficking in our state. For more information on how to identify and report human trafficking, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Ohio Attorney General maintain detailed online resource pages.