THE ISSUE: Less common than sex trafficking, forced labor and commercial exploitation remain underreported issues, particularly in immigrant communities, experts say. THE IMPACT: Massachusetts in recent years has seen forced labor cases involving domestic servants, construction workers and janitors, according to Attorney General Maura Healey.
EDITORS NOTE: This is the third installment in a series of stories exploring human trafficking in Massachusetts. The series delves into the widespread commercial sex trade in our cities and suburbs, the online marketplaces where pimps and johns buy and sell sex, cases of modern-day slavery and victims tales of survival.
Three years ago, a couple from Brazil moved to Massachusetts with their young child and took jobs with a cleaning company in New Bedford.
Instead of building their piece of the American Dream, however, they soon found themselves in a nightmare, according to prosecutors. Their employer, according to a criminal indictment, forced them to work up to 100 hours a week, cleaning banks, car dealerships, stores and other businesses in Bridgewater, Fall River, Marshfield and Cape Cod.
DMS Cleaning Services owner Donny Sousa, prosecutors allege, had recruited the couple to move from Brazil, promising them $3,000 in monthly wages. Instead, they said, he failed to deliver the promised pay and intimidated them into working for the company, threatening them with a handgun when they asked for their wages. In the 15 months the couple worked for DMS before fleeing, prosecutors say they were paid just $3,600 and had only three days off.
A grand jury indicted Sousa last October on human trafficking, weapons, wage theft and forced labor charges. Sousa has pleaded not guilty and is due back in Bristol Superior Court for a Sept. 6 status hearing.
Its one of the few examples of labor exploitation cases being prosecuted under the states 2011 human trafficking law, which has been most frequently applied to cases of sex trafficking.
While most human trafficking cases in Massachusetts involve the illicit sex trade, labor trafficking and commercial exploitation remain a problem, especially in the immigrant community, said Julie Dahlstrom, a clinical associate professor of law at Boston University and director of the schools Immigrants Rights and Human Trafficking Program.
We dont have accurate statistics around this problem, Dahlstrom said. Anecdotally, what weve seen is largely non-citizens subject to labor trafficking, although it does sometimes impact citizens.
The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that runs a national human trafficking hotline, got calls about 88 human trafficking cases in Massachusetts last year, 15 of which involved labor trafficking. Those numbers likely represent just a small fraction of human trafficking incidents, experts say.
We have had cases involving domestic servitude, said Lt. Detective Donna Gavin, head of the Boston Police Departments Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Unit. Those are cases where families have been visiting from other countries and brought a domestic servant with them, and have held onto their passport and are not paying them.
Last May, a Cambridge couple paid a $3,000 settlement to resolve allegations that they failed to properly pay a live-in Filipina nanny they brought with them from their native Qatar. Mohammed and Adeela Alyafei, Attorney General Maura Healeys office alleged, failed to pay the nanny for several weeks. When she asked for her wages and said she wanted to return to her home in the Philippines, the couple demanded her passport, bought her a plane ticket to Qatar, and threatened to punish her upon her return, according to prosecutors.
Healey said there have been trafficking cases involving housekeepers, nannies and construction workers.
Exploiters often hold considerable leverage over their victims, especially if they are foreign nationals living in the country illegally.
I think if you look at the labor context they are especially vulnerable because they fear retaliation by their employers. They fear reprisal, Healey said. Weve had matters where employers have not paid wages, subjected them to horrible conditions, then said, By the way, if you complain about it, were going to call ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Certainly those who are undocumented have an additional layer of vulnerability.
Experts say human labor and sex trafficking cases can be found in all corners of the country. The North Carolina-based World of Faith Fellowship church, for example, has engaged in a years-long human trafficking operation, importing a stream of church members from Brazil and forcing them to work in the United States for little or no pay, according to a recent Associated Press investigation.
President Donald Trumps immigration policies have added to a climate of fear in the immigrant community, making it even less likely that trafficked or exploited undocumented workers will seek help from the authorities, Dahlstrom said.
With the new administrations policy, theres so much uncertainty, she said. I think local law enforcement are trying to ensure the public feels safe reporting exploitation, but my fear is traffickers are unscrupulous and traffickers will use that uncertainty to hold workers or exploit them in poor conditions. The executive order indicated almost any non-citizen is an enforcement priority, so that means when they report to Homeland Security, theyre both a victim and an enforcement priority at the same time.
NEXT: In the fourth and final part of the series, experts and former victims of sex trafficking explore the internets role in the illicit sex trade in Massachusetts.
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