Human trafficking crimes cover a broad range of horrors. There is the 15-year old girl from China, sold into work bondage by her parents, working 70 hours a week in an upstate New York restaurant. There’s the housekeeper from Africa held captive by the family she worked for in Detroit, who made her work for free, verbally abused her and refused to get her medical help. There’s the 17- year old victim of convicted sex trafficker Leon Brown in New York who was psychologically coerced and beaten into engaging in acts of prostitution.

Brown was sentenced to 10 year years in state prison for sex trafficking. He was one of a small number of sex traffickers to be prosecuted, despite growing public awareness of the sex trafficking problem.

Labor trafficking, however, is even more rarely prosecuted: Neither the 15-year-old nor the housekeeper from Africa saw their abusers arrested. It enjoys far less publicity—even though some statistics indicate that it, not sex trafficking, is the main form of modern-day slavery.

An overlooked form of trafficking

Since 2000, the federal government and all 50 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that criminalize the trafficking of persons for labor and commercial sex. The Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines human trafficking as: “Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; and … the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

A Congressional Research Service report issued for 2013 said that as many as 17,500 people are believed to be trafficked to the United States each year.

To some, the trafficking problem is all but synonymous with sex work. In a speech to the Citizens Crime Commission last September, Jonathan Lippman, the state’s chief judge, said: “Though human trafficking includes labor trafficking, the vast majority of the victims–nearly 80 percent–are trafficked for sex.”

But Lippman’s statistic that 80 percent of trafficking cases involve sex says less than one might think. He means “cases” literally–instances where an arrest has been made or victims have applied for a special victims visa. Since critics contend that law enforcement is skewed to focus on sex trafficking, it’s not surprising that most of their cases revolve around it.

Other numbers paint a different picture of the problem.

According to statistics from the Polaris Project, which advocates for and assists trafficking survivors, in FY 2010, 449 federal certifications were issued to adult victims of human trafficking and 92 eligibility letters were issued to child victims. Polaris found that 82 percent of adult victims of trafficking and 56 percent of child victims of trafficking in the United States were labor trafficking victims, not sex trafficking victims.

In December of 2013, City Bar Justice Center’s Immigrant Women and Children Project released a special report that analyzed 150 human trafficking cases handled from 2002 through the summer of 2013. Their findings confirm the preponderance of labor trafficking in New York City. Out of the 150 human trafficking cases, 54.6 percent involved labor trafficking and 45.3 percent involved sex trafficking. Domestic work was the most frequently reported form of labor trafficking, representing nearly 80 percent of the cases.

The two forms of trafficking are not entirely separate: Some labor-trafficking victims are forced into sex work to pay off the debts they owe their abuser. But in general, sex trafficking enjoys a far higher profile. Measures to reduce sex trafficking were part of Gov. Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Agenda last year. Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore talk about sex trafficking.

A few high-profile labor-trafficking cases involving the abuse of domestic workers in New York have been prosecuted. In 2008, international perfume maker Mahender Sabhnani and his wife Varsha were sentenced to prison on charges that included forced labor, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harboring aliens.
This past March, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District indicted Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade on one count of visa fraud for paying a housekeeper far less than the minimum wage and one count of making false statements in her application for a work visa for that housekeeper. Prosecutors said Khobragade told the U.S. government that she was paying her housekeeper $9.75 an hour, while actually paying her less than $3 an hour and often making her work up to 100 hours a week cooking, cleaning and caring for Khobragade’s two children.

In April, the office indicted four individuals on charges of forced labor and visa fraud in connection with their hiring of female dancers in India under the false pretense that they would perform Indian cultural programs in the U.S. Once the victims were in the U.S., the defendants were forced to dance in nightclubs in front of crowds of men all night, seven nights a week.

But these were just two indictments that involved labor out of a string of recent human trafficking indictments, the majority of which involved sex trafficking. The same is true for local prosecutors. In March 2012, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office created a Human Trafficking Program within the Office’s Special Victims Bureau. The following year the office announced the sentencing of Norriel Ferguson to one year in jail after pleading guilty to Labor Trafficking for forcing children to sell candy for cash in the transit system. Since then, no other prosecutions for labor trafficking have been announced.

Shortcomings in investigations

Trafficking, whether for sex or labor, is rarely prosecuted. The Department of Justice initiated just 128 federal human trafficking prosecutions in fiscal year 2012, charging 200 defendants, 162 of whom were allegedly engaged predominately in sex trafficking and 38 engaged in labor trafficking. Figures for New York are even more dismal: According to the Division of Criminal Justice Services, in 2013 there were 59 arrests and 12 convictions for sex trafficking in the state, and two arrests and two convictions for labor trafficking.

Lack of awareness among both trafficking victims and law enforcement are the root causes for the lack of human trafficking prosecutions in New York City, experts say. “With trafficking, people are not coming into my office or the police saying, ‘I’ve been trafficked,'” says Suzanne Tomatore, Project Director of the City Bar Justice Center’s Immigrant Women and Children Project, which assists survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking and violent crimes in their immigration matters. “They have a sense that a crime was committed against them and that they’ve been deceived, manipulated and abused. They come to us for other reasons such as domestic violence or they’re trying to get help with immigration status. In talking to them, we identify initial trafficking to the United States. Sometimes our claimants have been in the United States for many years and were trafficked later.”

A 2012 study by the Institute on Labor and Justice of Northeastern University and the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute analyzed data from 12 U.S. counties in states that had human trafficking laws as of 2007. The data revealed that across the board, police departments lacked an investigative culture around human trafficking. Rather than develop the intelligence protocols for handling trafficking cases, police departments apply standard vice-crime protocols to prostitution cases and label those cases sex trafficking.

That orientation causes police departments to miss the full nature of the trafficking problem. Focusing on sex trafficking as an outgrowth of standard vice-law enforcement “just requires changing the person who was the perpetrator before to be recognized as the victim,” says Dr. Amy Farrell, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University and one of the authors of the study. “It doesn’t means you go out and find all new crimes you’ve never dealt with before, which is the case oftentimes for labor trafficking.”

The study found that another barrier to the development of intelligence protocols for labor trafficking is that law enforcement officials lacked knowledge regarding the broad range of human trafficking cases, at times confusing labor trafficking with a labor dispute. “Law enforcement is really not understanding what labor trafficking is,” says Tomatore. “It’s very easy for people to get their heads around sex trafficking when that’s what we see in the media , movies and TV.”

Another obstacle to the prosecution of labor trafficking cases is that investigations often fall in a gap between regulatory agencies and the criminal justice system. “[The Labor Department] says, ‘That’s not really what we’re here to do. We’re here to inspect the wage-and-hour violations and we don’t want to scare people that we’re doing criminal investigations because then people who don’t have immigration status will be fearful to talk to us,'” Farrell says. Meanwhile, among police agencies, “We found universally where law enforcement said, ‘We know there’s a lot of labor trafficking here but we don’t have the cases,'” says Farrell. “We would ask them, ‘Do you plan to go look for any cases?’ They simply say, ‘No one calls about these cases.'”

Despite the difficulties in conducting investigations, raising awareness of the problem of human trafficking is an important issue for state DOL. This past spring, it launched a new initiative to partner with businesses and train employees on identifying human trafficking in the labor market. A department spokesperson said the effort has resulting in the agency receiving more reports, and it has referred cases to district attorneys in Manhattan, Albany County, Rockland County, Suffolk County and across the state that led to investigations.

The court’s role

Since October of 2013, New York state courts have expanded a policy of diverting individuals arrested and charged with prostitution offenses to a separate court, Human Trafficking Intervention Court, which treats them as sex trafficking victims in need of a wide array of social services instead of jail time.

HTIC is the first state-wide court system in the country established to deal with human trafficking. The court began as pilot projects in Queens, midtown Manhattan and Nassau County and has expanded to all five boroughs as well as Yonkers, Long Island, Syracuse and Buffalo. It handles the cases of individuals charged with prostitution or loitering for the purposes of prostitution. Through the end of December 2013, the court had handled over 2,600 cases.

The court has an array of social service providers who work with charged individuals and provide vocational and educational training, as well as help dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault, substance abuse and mental health issues. In most cases, according to Kate Mogulescu, founder and head of the Legal Aid Society’s Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project, it is beneficial to the defendant’s case to cooperate with the service providers.

Some wonder if a court setting, however humane and service-oriented, is the best place for the government to help people who, by law, are victims, not criminals. Others feel the court equates prostitution with sex trafficking, and that law enforcement fails to identify and prosecute incidents of labor trafficking, making the problem seem non-existent. “It’s already embedded in our law enforcement culture to put resources into anti-prostitution policing,” said Mogulescu. “It’s an easier bet.”
Although the name of the court implies a focus on all types of trafficking, labor trafficking cases are never handled in the court. Instead it seeks to address the social elements that may be compelling sex workers and hopes to reduce repeat offenses.

“Originally, the court in Queens was called Prostitution Diversion Court and I think that was a better name for it,” says Tomatore. “They’re not handling labor trafficking and they’re not handling trafficking holistically. The federal and New York definition of sex trafficking state you have to be coerced into prostitution and not everyone who is going through the HTIC meets that definition.”

Hard work ahead

The Northeastern University study concluded that education on the full extent of trafficking is needed to improve law enforcement’s response to labor trafficking and advance its prioritization in the local community.

Tomatore, whose organization conducts workshops with the NYPD on trafficking, would like to see training extend beyond the Vice Unit: “They (Vice) have a lot on their plate. I think it would be interesting to see more involvement from different units of NYPD, such as the Special Victims Unit, which deals with crime victims and investigations from a more victim centered approach.”

David Beasley, spokesperson for Safe Horizon, which assists trafficking victims and trains law enforcement and government personnel, is optimistic that the NYPD’s response to labor trafficking will improve, as it has for other crimes such as domestic violence.

“This is a new movement,” he said. “The responses of governmental bodies and law enforcement officials to these crimes is still very much in formation. We’re optimistic that we will get trainings out there and we will have our advocates working to make these processes better.”