Update: Human Trafficking

traffickingMedium2January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. What better time to report on our local efforts over the past year to end slavery in our state. Human trafficking is the modern term for enslavement. Victims of every age are recruited into slavery every day through the use of force, fraud and/or coercion. There are two basic types of slaves: Labor and sex workers. Labor slaves are often tricked into slavery through fraudulent claims of high-paying jobs that too often turn out to be nothing like what was originally offered. In our economic situation, people are desperate for work that will feed their families and keep the lights on. Job seekers turn to staffing agencies that charge very high recruitment fees. They are then sent to a worksite and told that the job they applied for is no longer available, but there are still other jobs to do with lower pay. Their paychecks are split between paying off the recruitment fee and lodging on the worksite. There is very little left to send home, and eventually, the worker comes to the realization that he or she can never get ahead at that pace. If they decide to leave, they are often threatened with lawsuits or even harm to their families. In the case of a foreign worker who arrived with a worker’s visa, their passports may be confiscated if they try to leave. Such is the recent case that was brought to light after the Black Elk oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in November.
The massive explosion aboard the West Delta Block 32 platform started when Filipino workers tried to repair a pipe. Three workers died in the explosion and several more were severely burned, and one was never found. In the days that followed, attention was brought to the fact that this platform had a long history of safety violations and accidents. Looking for some answers, it was discovered that the Filipino workers were labor slaves who had been forced to work 10 to 16 hour days at the rate of $5.50 per hour, seven days a week. They were only paid for 40 regular hours per week, and were not permitted breaks, and were underfed. They were each charged more than $3,000 a month for lodging that consisted of a 10 foot by ten foot room they had to share with four to six other men. When on shore, they were not permitted to leave the fenced in shipyard grounds, except on rare occasions when they were escorted on a one-hour trip to a local discount store to purchase personal items. Additionally, the traffickers confiscated their tax refunds for five years in a row.
Biloxi immigration attorney Ellaine Carr, along with two other law firms, are representing the labor trafficking victims in a class action lawsuit against Industrial Personnel and Management Services, Inc.; D & R Offshore and Crewing Services; Grand Isle Shipyard; Pacific Ocean Manning Inc.; V People, Inc., and; Thunder Enterprises, Inc. D & R is also known as “DNR” and is the guest-worker staffing agency of record for Grand Isle Shipyard. Of the 500 workers who signed on to the lawsuit, Carr is representing 50 of them. When initially recruited in the Philippines, the workers had to pass an extensive skills test and were offered welding and pipefitting jobs that paid $16.25 an hour, and $24.37 an hour for overtime. The workers were also promised E2 Visas which would allow them to eventually apply for permanent resident status in the United States. For ambitious skilled men from an economically oppressed country, the offer seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime to create a stable life for their families. Instead, what they got was enslavement, threats of deportation, abusive treatment and a hostile work environment. Their social security cards were confiscated upon arrival to the United States. When their contract expired, they were sent back to Philippines and were told they could not return unless they agreed to work for Grand Isle Shipyard again. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Grand Isle Shipyard and DNR attempted to bribe some of the workers to drop the charges. A Louisiana judge has barred any of the defendants from having any further contact with the plaintiffs.
Ellaine Carr has also been busy with two other major labor trafficking lawsuits in the past year. As reported before in the July 2011 edition of Go To Places, laborers at Five Star Forestry of Hattiesburg and Southern Mississippi Pine Straw of Purvis worked for $3 an hour in deplorable conditions. Michael V Lombardi, the trafficker who recruited the workers, was convicted in early 2012 for his part in the enslavement of these men as well as workers at the Beau Rivage Casino and Aramark Corporation, and the workers were paid restitution. One man who worked at the pine straw company has been reunited with his family and lives locally. More recently, Ellaine won a case for her clients who were trafficked as school teachers in East Baton Rouge, Caddo and Jefferson Parishes of south Louisiana. A federal jury awarded the teachers $4.5 million. The staffing agency involved in that case was Universal Placement International Inc. of Los Angeles.
Sex trafficking has also been exposed along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2012. Advocates For Freedom (AFF) is the state-wide organization that works to combat human trafficking and to provide training to law enforcement and awareness programs to the public. The agency reports that they have served at least 92 trafficking victims locally in the past year. Almost all of them were sex trafficking victims. Most were children who were forced in to prostitution at an early age. According to the US Department of State, it is estimated that nearly one million children are lured into prostitution every year in the United States. The average age of these children at the time they enter the illegal sex trade is twelve. And this is not just a problem seen in large cities or metropolitan areas. It happens everywhere in the United States, even in small towns and frequently in suburban neighborhoods. Children are often trafficked by their own parents or by other students at their schools. They are also lured by the promises of modeling careers, or simply lured into a car at the local shopping mall.
AFF volunteers believe that the first line of defense for sex trafficking is better training for law enforcement to recognize and investigate incidents of sex trafficking. Police officers encounter prostitutes frequently in their duties, but now they are looking beneath the surface when they make an arrest and finding adults and children enslaved and forced into prostitution. One such incident concerned Moonseop Kim, a Biloxi man who allegedly held women captive and forced them to have sex for money. Moonsep was indicted in federal court in November after police officers arrested him in an undercover sting operation. He is being held without bond until trial. In another undercover operation, Biloxi Police uncovered an escort service operated by Eric A. Underwood and Dominque Y. Watkins. A local victim was allegedly forced to provide sex for money at local hotels.
AFF is currently developing an accredited Human Trafficking curriculum for training law enforcement around the state. The Mississippi Attorney General’s Office is actively promoting the training as they work to strengthen the state’s trafficking laws. An AFF representative said that the law enforcement training will commence in early spring of this year. To prepare the law enforcement, first responders and human services providers, last year AFF has conducted more than 100 awareness presentations throughout the state, and 6 major conferences that featured national and international experts on human trafficking and human rights. Advocates For Freedom is currently gearing up for the week of the Super Bowl, the most profitable week of the year for sex traffickers. The AFF representative said that the Mississippi Gulf Coast will be the command center for outreach, rescue and running interference for those who exploit men women and children for profit. If you are interested in getting training and being a part of the Super Bowl program, or to attend the law enforcement and first responders training, visit Advocates For Freedom’s website or Facebook page for details on how you can help save lives. http://www.advocatesforfreedom.org

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