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How coercion and force leads to trafficking of workers in Central New York

A woman working at a sewing machine, another woman holding a baby doing laundry
NYS Department of Labor
Excerpt of a poster from the NYS Department of Labor

Forced labor — the use of force, fraud or coercion to make someone work against their will — is among the most common forms of human trafficking, and happens every day in Central New York. Experts say many victims don’t report it fearing they will be punished, especially if they’re undocumented, even though coming forward may actually be the best way to legalize their status.

Along with the trauma it creates for victims, New York State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon says the biggest problem with labor trafficking is that it is unseen. When people aren't aware of it, they often think it "happens in the shadows," she said. But it does not.

"It happens right out in broad daylight," said Reardon. "And people just don't realize that that's what's going on."

Or how the most vulnerable are intentionally targeted, she says: "Immigrants who are new to this country, low wage workers, single mothers. People who, in many ways, are separated from society are often the ones who get caught up in this and, and often the victims themselves don't realize that it's not lawful."

That last point is especially true among some immigrants, for instance those forced to work in exchange for paying off a debt for being brought to New York or the U.S., without an understanding of state or federal labor laws.

Meanwhile, other immigrants may have their passports or IDs withheld by traffickers, says Sara McDowell, Deputy Executive Director for Immigration Programs at the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Central New York.

Victims may have their movement restricted, says McDowell, and if they're caught up in a trafficking network, their family members back home may be threatened.

And while many associate trafficking with adult construction or farming laborers in Central New York, McDowell says many victims are minors who are coerced or tricked into working in a range of industries.

"We have had some cases involving teenagers who have been brought here to work in food service situations or convenience store types of places," said McDowell. "We have also actually seen labor trafficking situations in the context of sports and athletics."

Reardon and McDowell both urge anyone who’s being trafficked — or knows of trafficking — to contact the state Labor Department, regardless of the legal status of the victim or victims.

In fact, if victims are undocumented, they could be eligible for a T nonimmigrant visa especially designed to protect them, says McDowell. According to the U.S. government, the so-called T visa "is available to noncitizens who are or have been victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons and assist law enforcement in the detection, investigation, or prosecution of acts of trafficking."

McDowell says this gives victims of labor and other forms of trafficking "a pathway to potential immigration status, and they don't have to rely on being stuck in a situation fearing deportation if they come forward."

Or prosecution, adds Commissioner Reardon, at least not in New York State.

Natasha Senjanovic teaches radio broadcasting at the Newhouse School while overseeing student journalists at WAER and creating original reporting for the station. She can also be heard hosting All Things Considered some weekday afternoons.