It has been nearly four years since I began my book research on human trafficking. Not only does that point to how long it apparently takes me to write a book but it also illustrates the complicated nature that is human trafficking.
No matter the nation – first, second, or third world – human trafficking exists. Yet the common thread between nations is the ostrich-like belief that the situation must be worse elsewhere – and that what trafficking does exist in their nation must exclusively involve foreigners. While there is no denying that foreigners are involved in each nation’s trafficking scenario (migrants are one of the most vulnerable populations globally), internal trafficking within a nation occurs too.
Unfortunately, the idea that foreigners are committing crimes against other foreigners creates a blanket of non-responsibility, both socially and even legislatively. How much can a nation truly control what ‘other’ people do to ‘other’ people? Of course the catch is when legislation doesn’t just ignore the exploitation of people but even creates loopholes for it to occur. Among others, this can be seen in the nations of Japan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States.
In Japan, foreign unskilled laborers are prohibited from employment. Yet, as is the case in most nations, there is demand for low wage workers. To help satisfy this need the Government-run Industrial Training Program (ITP) and Technical Internship Program (TIP) created loopholes for employers to obtain low-cost migrant workers.
Designed as a three-year training and technical intern program, enrollees are supposed to spend the first year as a trainee and the remaining two years as a technical intern. The worker’s dependence on legal employment is tied to one employer, creating the opportunity for unfair treatment and abuse. Unscrupulous employers take advantage of the system and – after withholding worker passports – force laborers to work excessive hours, restrict their movements, and either don’t pay workers or pay them nominal amounts. There are also reports of physical and sexual abuse. If workers try to leave earlier than the designated three-year period they forgo their deposit. When a worker is already severely in debt, this is a serious disincentive to leaving the scenario.
In the UAE, migrant workers make up more than 90% of the UAE’s private sector workforce. The recruitment of foreign workers involves a crooked system of brokers and agents that swindle large sums of money from workers. Foreign nationals are promised high paying jobs in the UAE but upon arrival they often earn less than 50% of what they were promised, or are simply not paid. Akin to the system in Japan, workers are linked to just one employer, their ‘sponsor’. If the worker tries to find better employment – except in instances where the sponsor (employer) failed to pay him/her for more than two months – the employer is obligated to trigger his/her deportation. In fact, companies face heavy fines if they fail to request the UAE government to cancel ‘absconding’ workers’ visas.
While it is illegal for employers in the UAE to withhold worker passports, the common method for an employer to trigger the deportation of a worker is to turn in the worker’s passport to the Ministry of Interior. That is quite a contradiction. Don’t hold onto employer passports – it is illegal but um, do hold onto them so that you can trigger deportation if need be. Oh, and we will fine you (employer) if you don’t do so.
Discussing the U.S. is the trickiest portion of this article, particularly since the audience is in the U.S. While readers likely digested the above information with no problem, citizens get sensitive when it comes to the flaws of their own nation. Furthermore, as is the case in many nations affected by the global economic decline (France, Italy, Israel, and so on), we (the U.S.) are tightening our belts when it comes to foreigners. It is a ‘times are tight and we have enough mouths to feed’ mentality. Sure the emphasis has been on illegal migrants, but many folks don’t want to hear about the rights of legal migrant workers either.
Well, here it goes. Under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, the U.S. has taken significant measures against human trafficking. At the same time the highly unregulated “one sponsor” H-2B guestworker visa program has contradicted the nation’s pledge to protect victims of trafficking by creating the very opportunity in which legal migrant workers could be exploited. The H-2B visa allows for the hire of temporary nonimmigrant workers to perform non-agricultural labor on a one-time, seasonal, peakload or intermittent basis. Even with the amended regulations, there are significant flaws in the current H-2B visa program but it is the lack of enforcement of the program that has made it ripe for unscrupulous employers to exploit workers with little to no consequence.
Guestworkers in the U.S. have faced a variety of exploitations ranging from withheld passports; non-payment; some workers lived in labor camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards; restricted movements; armed employers that would shoot their guns in the air to ensure that their employees would not try to run away; threats of harm and deportation; detainment; and physical abuse.
Part of the problems is that no agency took responsibility for the program. In a bureaucratic form of hot potato the Department of Labor (DOL) pointed to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and DHS said, “who me?”
Technically the DOL was correct. In 2005, Congress vested DHS with enforcement authority over the H-2B program. As a result, the DOL had no authority to enforce the provisions and regulations of the program. In late 2008 discussions between DHS and the DOL resulted in an agreement that the DOL should be delegated H-2B enforcement authority.
The gist is that for nearly four years no governmental agency took ownership for the H-2B program. Today numerous amendments to the DOL regulations modernize the procedures for issuing labor certification to employers sponsoring H-2B guestworkers.
The amendments prohibit employers from passing onto foreign workers the cost of attorney or agent fees, the H-2B application, or recruitment associated with obtaining labor certification. This is extremely significant because the exorbitant fees often place a worker in debt. In cases where the employer paid the aforementioned costs, the worker is told that before they can receive their wages they have to ‘work off’ the fees. Also charged high fees for housing, food, and even the use of work tools, the worker can never catch up, putting them in a position of debt bondage.
As stated by the DOL, these are business expenses associated with aiding the employer to complete the labor certification application and labor market test – “The employer’s responsibility to pay these costs exists separate and apart from any benefit that may accrue to the foreign worker”.
One reality is that on a global scale trafficking for the purposes of forced labor is just starting to be acknowledged as such. Sex trafficking of foreigners has long been the focal point of the international anti-trafficking movement. Today, more attention – at least legislatively – is getting paid to forced labor. But society and enforcement of these laws seem to lag a bit behind the legislative changes. In all three nations forced labor victims are commonly arrested and deported for immigration violations prior to an adequate screening to determine whether they are in fact trafficking victim. In the U.S. identified forced labor victims received comprehensive services. The same cannot yet be said for the UAE or Japan.
Stephanie Hepburn is co-author of the forthcoming book Hidden in Plain Sight: Human Trafficking the World Over. The above is a collection of excerpts from the book. You can contact the author at email@example.com