In September 8th, a federal indictment against Michael V. Lombardi was issued for the trafficking of foreign nationals at a Biloxi casino and in Purvis, Ms. The 3 count indictment states that Lombardi committed fraud and made false statements concerning foreign workers who were brought to the United States on legally obtained work visas regarding where and for whom they would work. The indictment states that the workers were recruited under false pretenses. In a civil lawsuit won by the victims earlier this year, it was established that their passports were confiscated, and some were forced to work bailing pine straw for less than $3 per hour, and living in a run-down trailer with no running water. Others were sent to an upscale Biloxi resort hotel to work as maids for less than $4.75 per hour, and given quotas of cleaning 11 rooms per day.
“Human traffickers use fraud, coercion and force to keep their captives working,” said a volunteer of a local nonprofit group called Advocates For Freedom (AFF), whose mission is to provide human services to victims of trafficking. “They paint a beautiful picture. You’ll have a great job, a chance to see America.” The volunteer went on to say that South Mississippi has all the right aspects for human trafficking to thrive: A large hospitality industry, military bases full of young men seeking female companionship, an international airport and sea port, and the I-10 corridor. The dedicated staff at AFF knows that the indictment of Lombardi is only the first of many to come in our area.
This particular AFF volunteer is a retired corporate human resources director with 39 years of experience in the field. During her career, the volunteer said that she saw the signs of human trafficking but didn’t know it at the time. “I just saw it as bad business practices,” she said. The AFF volunteer now wants to educate business owners and other HR workers about how they can prevent unknowingly hiring trafficked persons. She said she saw the tell-tale signs, including people working exceedingly long hours. “There is no way the company was making money paying all that over-time,” she said. “I also saw that there was poor customer service. The staff was non-English speaking. They didn’t know how to relate to the customer.” The former HR director recommended that businesses use the state and federal guidelines in an effort to prevent hiring slaves from an unscrupulous staffing agency. “Slave-labor and the illegal sex trade are both thriving on the MS Gulf Coast, and it adversely impacts local commerce and the safety of our community,” said the AFF volunteer. “We hope the community will learn how their own businesses might already be impacted by human trafficking without their knowledge… There are reputable staffing agencies along the Coast,” she continued. “But if an agency is costing you a lot less, look in to the reason for it.”
In a speech delivered to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2008, Mark Lagon of the US Department of State declared, “Human trafficking is a dehumanizing crime that literally turns people into mere commodities. Multiple layers of contractors, of subcontractors, and a production chain present major challenges for accountability.” Lagon is the director for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and presents training to international heads of state on how to prevent the perpetuation of human trafficking by instituting best practices in corporations. His sentiments echo those of the local AFF volunteer, who believes that we need to see companies seeking to certify themselves as free of human exploitation, and that they are maintaining “clean” supply chains. “Hiring an audit firm is not enough,” Lagon said. We need to establish “in the minds of business leaders that it’s worthwhile to go farther.” He said that human trafficking is driven by, “lack of rule of law, corruption, frankly sadistic people who are willing to abuse people.” Although poverty and lack of opportunities is a factor, without corruption and criminal behavior, “you wouldn’t have people sucked into this situation,” he said.
Some of the suggestions to businesses who plan to use staffing agencies include:
Insist on seeing the housing provided by staffing companies for contract laborers. Many slaves are housed in cramped quarters, often without proper sanitary provisions. The residential compound may be on or near the work site. There may be bars and locks on the windows and doors. Workers are alwssy escorted and cannot leave the compound alone. If a human resources manager witnesses these conditions, or he or she is prohibited access to the workers’ residence, this is a sign that the workers are being held against their will.
Ask questions of the workers to determine if they are allowed to come and go as they please, that they are in possession of their identification documents and passport. How did they get to this location? Is this the job they were promised? Simple questions like, “Can you quit your job any time you want to?” or “Do you believe something bad will happen to you or your family if you leave?” can help you ascertain if the workers are being trafficked.
Look at the quality of work produced by the agency’s workers. “It costs alot to get a good employee trained,” said the AFF volunteer. Workers who are not invested into do not represent your company well, so this can be bad publicity for your business.
Is there a high turn-over rate? This is a sign that workers are not being trained in an effort to keep costs down. Since there is a large supply of slaves, it is easier to relocate a worker whose performance is poor than it is to train them. The lowest performing workers face being taken to the sex trade industry or unskilled hard labor jobs.
Poor compliance with codes and standards. “If a staffing agency is used,” explained the HR veteran, “the hiring company is responsible for checking I-9’s.” The paychecks should be cut to the individual workers, not as a lump sum to the staffing agency for disbursement to the workers. If this is done, the HR veteran said “you won’t know if the W2’s are done correctly, or payroll taxes are properly paid and reported… The employee pays 4% of their paycheck to Social Security. The employer pays 6.2%. Without documentation,” she continued, “you don’t know if this is happening. You also won’t know if workers are being paid properly for over-time.” It is the obligation of the hiring company, not the staffing agency, to make sure that tax and labor laws are being adhered to, the AFF volunteer said.
Negative public opinion. What is the reputation of the staffing agency? Or does it have one at all? Most human trafficking rings do not seek publicity because they do not want closer scrutiny of their business practices. If any information about them is in the media, it is usually negative.
Other suggestions that make it harder for human traffickers to become a part of your business are to strive for total transparency in your hiring practices, and to develop long-term relationships with reputable staffing agencies. Human resources personnel should be knowledgeable about how to report incidents they suspect are signs of human trafficking. The company’s Employment Assistance Program should provide for the needs of victims that are identified on the payroll. “The policy should be similar to the company’s policy for dealing with sexual harassment,” said the HR veteran. The international organization, the Ethical Trading Initiative, provides useful publications for companies seeking to update their hiring policies and practices to include prevention of hiring trafficked individuals.
If you suspect human trafficking in your place of business, or in your community, the National Hotline can help you by suggesting steps you can take to protect the victims and bring the traffickers to justice. If you are able to safely speak with an adult victim, let him or her know that there is also help for them by calling the National Hotline. If you suspect the victim is under the age of 18, you can report it to any social worker, medical professional or law enforcement agency in your area. If you are a victim of trafficking, reach out to someone you trust that is not involved with the agency that brought you here. Find someone who can speak your language, or call the National Hotline and they will get you in touch with someone in your area who can help you. The hotline number is 888-373-7888.