Everyone deserves to be safe in their home and workplace. However, this is not the case for those who are survivors of labor trafficking. Recently, NBC reported on a labor trafficking case on a marijuana farm in Southern California. This farm was growing illegal marijuana and using forced labor to profit.
The survivors working on the farm had previously worked in restaurants before the pandemic. Like so many, they lost their jobs when restaurants were forced to close their doors during lockdowns. To make ends meet they were willing to take a job that would pay them enough to get by and jumped at the offer to relocate. Instead when they arrived, they were forced to work without pay and to live in horrible living conditions. They had little options to leave without money for food or transportation. After several grueling weeks of work they had nothing to show for it.
After complaints from the neighbors, police raided the grow location. Despite a clear understanding that these workers were victims of labor trafficking, the police arrested them and they were charged with misdemeanors because they would not explicitly admit they were victims. This happens all too often. There are many reasons why survivors might choose not to report their trafficking. They may be afraid of law enforcement from previous interactions or fear retaliation from their trafficker. They may be forced to testify against their trafficker in court which can be very retraumatizing. Martina Vandenberg, the president of FNUSA member Human Trafficking Legal Center, says “In a sense it [testifying] replicates much of the trauma they’ve already experienced. Lastly, many survivors may not understand their rights or even understand what labor trafficking is.
A criminal record can be devastating for someone who has experienced human trafficking. Survivors may struggle to get a job, find safe housing, attend school, and more. This can result in a cycle of poverty that leaves them vulnerable to future exploitation. After years of advocacy from anti-trafficking professionals, there are options for survivors who end up with a criminal record depending on the state, but it can be a long and difficult path. FNUSA’s Survivor Reentry Project can help survivors understand their criminal history and link them to attorneys to assist them in this process. Programs like this exist because the criminal justice system continues to arrest and charge vulnerable people who have been victimized.
The survivors in this raid should not have been arrested and instead should have been offered to connect with trained service providers that have experience navigating the systems ahead. FNUSA Members work across the US and provide trauma-informed services to trafficking survivors. Weeks after the raid, workers still did not have the financial resources to go back home to see their families. Service providers could have helped them secure housing, access food and medical care, assist with transportation costs, and ensure their legal needs were covered. Human trafficking survivors deserve services not handcuffs.