Thursday, Jan 18, 2018
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Forced labor spotlighted at trafficking event

COLUMBUS — Harold D’Souza and his family were brought from India in 2003 to the Cincinnati area by a family friend to work in his restaurant.

Upon his arrival, his employer, to which Mr. D’Souza’s work visa was tied, took what money and documents he had and threatened to report him for deportation. He was saddled with debt, worked 14 to 16-hour days at the restaurant without pay, had no money or food of his own, and lived with his family on the floor of a one-bedroom apartment.

Months later when authorities were alerted, his employer threw Mr. D’Souza and his family out. Mr. D’Souza had never heard of human trafficking and specifically never of labor trafficking.

Today, Mr. D’Souza is co-chairman of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, and on Thursday he participated in the Ohio Human Trafficking Awareness Day at the Statehouse. With help, his family members have gotten visas allowing them to stay and work in the United States.

“I came on a trust,” he said. “I came on a faith. I came on a promise, and I came to live the American dream. But little did I know, everything went down the drain.”

He said he never saw justice.

“Ninety percent of the victims, they don’t come out because they are scared,” Mr. D’Souza said. “They think that they won’t get justice. No. 2, it’s a stigma, a shame, and, No. 3, they don’t want to get deported.”

This was the ninth annual such event but the first in which at least a partial spotlight was put on labor trafficking, often overlooked amid the emphasis on sex trafficking in the state.

Labor has long been included in Ohio’s anti-trafficking laws designed to prosecute those who use force, coercion, violence, threats, and deception to lure people into a world of modern-day slavery. Most of the discussion, however, has focused on the sex trade in which typically women and girls are forced to engage in sex for the profit of their captors.

But similar acts can be used to entrap people to pick crops, clean homes, provide child care, or work in restaurants and food service, construction, and elsewhere. Often the victims are foreign immigrants, both legal and illegal, lured with promises of higher-paying jobs that don’t exist and sometimes held captive physically or through threats.

Globally, an estimated 20.9 million people are trafficked, 18.7 million of which are connected to labor, according to International Labour Organization statistics. But just 15 percent of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the United States are labor-related.

“We are not having enough of a conversation countrywide about labor trafficking, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that,” said Kathleen Kersh, staff attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Dayton during the event’s first breakout session exclusively on labor trafficking.

“I think anti-immigrant sentiment is one of them, because a lot of people who are victims of labor trafficking are immigrants,” she said.

As has become tradition, state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), the force behind the event, led a brief candle-lighting ceremony in memory of Ohio’s trafficking victims. On Friday, she will participate in the second awareness day focusing on Ohio’s youth, recognizing that statistics show the average age of a child being recruited into the sex trade is 13.

“Could this be the generation that changes things up?” Ms. Fedor asked. “They’re high-schoolers.”

In recent years, Ohio has enacted laws toughening punishment for traffickers and those who buy their services, and shifting the focus toward treating those who have been trafficked more like victims and less like criminals when they’re picked up for prostitution or other crimes. 

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com  or 614-221-0496.

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