Slavery’s New Name: Labor Trafficking

July 12, 2013

This past June, the State Department released a human trafficking report that served as a shocking and very sad reminder that even in 2013, slave labor is alive and well. According to the report, as many as 27 million men, women, and children are estimated to be trafficking victims at any given time, and some of those victims, the State Department says, are later forced to work in agriculture and food processing, both industries prevalent in Massachusetts.

To shed light on trafficking within Greater Boston, the Boston Bar Association (BBA) invited MassCOSH’s Workers’ Center organizers Mirna Montano and Jonny Arévalo on June 6 to take part on a panel discussion on the fast-growing illegal trafficking industry titled “A Call to Action.”

For years now, sex trafficking stories have been captivating the general public. From movies like Taken and TV shows like Law and Order: SVU, to hard-hitting journalism revealing abhorrent and organized human right violations, a spotlight has been firmly fixed on predators making millions off of the poor, young, and disadvantaged. However, little attention is given to a much more prevalent form of trafficking – that of unpaid labor.

“At the Workers Center, we have seen many workers being taken advantage of in horrible ways,” says Arévalo. “We have seen workers whose passports have been taken from them and forced to work to get them back. I’ve seen employers separate families to hold workers hostage and I have also met with workers carted around state to state to work for a couple dollars an hour. Labor trafficking is real and is in our neighborhoods.”

As a MassCOSH funder, the BBA has been essential in the Workers Centers’ fight against employers who benefit from trafficked workers and was eager to have Montano and Arévalo share their experiences with a concerned and capable audience.

“The Public Interest Leadership Program of the Boston Bar Association requested that Mirna and Jonny speak at the “Call To Action” because of their phenomenal work on the ground to support labor trafficking survivors,” said Staci Rubin, Staff Attorney at Alternatives for Community & Environment and a leader at the Public Interest Leadership Program. “We wanted the legal community to understand how human trafficking happens in Massachusetts and to call attention to the labor issues.”

The afternoon of intense discussion also served as an opportunity to review progress made in fighting trafficking after the state enacted An Act Relative to the Commercial Exploitation of People. The Act, passed in February of 2012, created both criminal and civil penalties, and other means of redress, for human trafficking-related offenses in Massachusetts. The Act also established a task force chaired by Attorney General Martha Coakley to address all aspects of human trafficking through policy and other changes.

“Here at MassCOSH, we are always hearing cases of workers being shipped from places like East Boston to factories all over the state and being underpaid or being forced to pay illegal fees,” said Montano. “In some cases, we even see employers not paying their employees at all, like when a 16 year-old girl worked at a restaurant, housed in poor conditions, and given no pay. It’s cases like hers that really will benefit from the protections and the task force created by the new law.”

MassCOSH’s distinct labor trafficking perspective was very well received by the legal crowd. As Arévalo and Montana discussed their work with immigrant populations and the many ways they are taken advantage of by employers, key similarities between sex and labor trafficking began to emerge.

The need to support oneself with limited skills can force both young people and immigrants into both sex and labor trafficking. Power and fear can also play a large role in keeping individuals in trafficking situations. In sex trafficking, adults and males can prey on young people’s emotions and utilize brute strength to imprison young women and boys. In labor trafficking, language barriers and legal status can keep workers from questioning their low pay, excessive hours, and other abuses. With law enforcement being required in some cases to inquire into citizenship or to arrest those accused of prostitution, trafficked persons often feel trapped with no one to turn to and can remain in their degrading arrangement for years.

“The effect that Jonny and Mirna had on the audience was visibly apparent,” said Membership and Communications Coordinator Jeff Newton, who observed the panel. “You could see light bulbs going off, people realizing that trafficking included much more than what they originally thought. There was a piece to the trafficking puzzle – the labor side – that they were missing, but never realized it.”

Rubin was also pleased with the amount of information and first-hand stories Montano and Arévalo were able to provide.

“Mirna and Jonny successfully and passionately articulated what human trafficking looks like in the Commonwealth and how people can work across disciplines to address the issue,” said Rubin. “I am delighted with the large event turnout, which signals that the legal community cares about the issue of human trafficking. There is a group of individuals who stand ready to take action to support survivors and other experts in their anti-human trafficking work.”

MassCOSH will continue to work closely with the legal community, the Attorney General's Office, and Workers Center members to combat labor trafficking throughout Massachusetts.

For more information on how you can help, please email Mirna Montano at