[COLUMN] The fight for human labor trafficking (modern day slavery) victims continues

Q: MY employer brought me to America to work as live-in nanny for their youngest child. I would be paid $1,000 per month with weekends off.  When we arrived in Los Angeles, my employer took my passport. I was then made to work 7 days a week, up to 16 hours per day, taking care of an infant and cleaning and cooking for the entire family.  I was not allowed to leave the house without my employer. I was paid $300, not the $1,000 that was promised. When I complained, my employer told me I was lucky that I have free room and food. I was then told that if I leave, I will be deported because my visa is expired. What should I do?

A: You can either call the police or seek legal help from an employment attorney. You may be a victim of human trafficking, specifically, labor trafficking.

Human trafficking is obtaining labor by the use of force, fraud or coercion in order to subject a person to involuntary servitude or slavery. Many cases of human trafficking in the news focus on sex human trafficking. However, be it labor or sex, human trafficking involves restriction on a person’s liberty. This is a criminal offense. Traffickers found guilty of the crime are sentenced to imprisonment with additional penalty of having to pay monetary restitution to their victims.

However, a study done by The Human Trafficking Legal Center found that federal courts rarely order mandatory restitution for victims. And even when ordered, trafficking victims rarely receive these funds. This is the situation in the criminal justice system.

Remedies that provide relief personal to the survivors, however, are provided under the civil justice system. Civil remedies that allow recovery of monetary compensation against the traffickers are available. In a civil action, victims of labor trafficking are entitled to wages due to them. They may also claim damages for physical or emotional injuries suffered under exploitative conditions.

Trafficking victims are entitled to significant civil damages, including:

1) Actual damages (proper wages owed under California law, including overtime pay, legal interest, and penalties);

2) Damages for emotional distress;

3) Treble damages (which means the victim’s actual damages are multiplied by three);

4) Punitive damages; and

5) Attorneys’ fees and costs

Criminal prosecutions are pursued by government attorneys (i.e., prosecutors). Civil actions are filed by private attorneys retained by the victims to protect their interests. Thus, while they continue to cooperate with law enforcement, it is important for trafficking survivors to pursue civil actions to help them obtain all available civil remedies against their traffickers. As an attorney who represents trafficking survivors in litigation, I know these workers sustained serious personal losses. With monetary damages that can be recovered by pursuing civil cases against their traffickers, survivors obtain financial resources to enable them to start anew and rebuild their lives.

Victims of trafficking do not have to be foreign nationals, they could be American citizens lawful residents, or even foreign nationals who have valid visas upon entry to the country. They do not even have to be transported, or moved across state or national borders. Trafficking victims may be coerced or forced to render services in the following industries: domestic work, medical and caregiving work, restaurants, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and retail.

The legal rights of trafficking survivors in civil actions have been broadened. They can now seek recovery not only against the direct traffickers, but also against employers or whoever knowingly benefitted from the unlawful conduct. The source of payments may be homeowners, business entities like restaurants or farm owners, or those who knew or should have known they were benefitting from trafficked workers.

It has been more than 150 years since the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery under the Thirteenth Amendment. However, human trafficking as a form of modern day slavery continues. With vigorous enforcement of employment and civil rights laws, human trafficking should be stopped..

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. [For more than 25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a past Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas.]

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