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PRESS RELEASE
1-19-11

Employment Discrimination Laws ‘New Frontier’ In War Against Human Labor Trafficking

Panel of Experts, Victim, Tell EEOC How Trafficked Workers Are Misled, Mistreated and Discriminated Against

WASHINGTON—Anti-employment discrimination laws—particularly those prohibiting race and national origin discrimination as well as sexual harassment—are an integral part of the national fight against human labor trafficking, experts testified before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) at a meeting today. The meeting was held in conjunction with National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

A panel from government agencies and public interest groups, along with a victim of labor trafficking whose case the EEOC litigated, spoke about the problems in identifying, prosecuting and remedying the trafficking of people for the purpose of labor—whether bringing people from abroad under false promises of employment and wages, or from within the United States.

“President Obama has designated January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month,” said EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien. “Today’s Commission meeting highlighted the critically important role the EEOC has played in protecting the rights of victims of trafficking.”

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, Senior Advisor to the Secretary at the Department of State and an expert on the global problem of trafficking, recognized the EEOC’s “crucial partnership” in the interagency efforts to combat trafficking. “The EEOC is perfectly poised to contribute to Federal government efforts to combat human trafficking because of its role to enforce laws that offer protection within the workplace,” he said. “I see the EEOC’s participation in federal interagency efforts to combat trafficking as a new frontier of the U.S. approach to tackling this crime and seeking justice for the victims.”

Ambassador CdeBaca’s view was echoed by Daniel Werner of the Immigrant Justice Project, part of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who told the Commission that “employment discrimination claims are often a critical component of litigation on behalf of human trafficking survivors. The willingness of traffickers to target individuals of specific national origins based on stereotypes about who best performs certain jobs or is less likely or able to complain about exploitation places many human trafficking cases squarely within the purview of the EEOC.” Trafficking is not just a case of undocumented immigrants, he pointed out in testimony echoed by other witnesses, in many instances unscrupulous labor traffickers exploit visa programs designed to bring guest workers into the country legally.

Perhaps the most poignant testimony came from a victim of trafficking, Sathaporn Pronsrisirisak, one of the charging parties in EEOC’s case against Trans Bay Steel. Speaking through an interpreter and at times overcome with emotion, Mr. Pronsrisirisak detailed how he was lured to the United States from Thailand with the promise of lucrative work as a welder, mortgaging his family’s home and land to pay the exorbitant “processing” fee demanded by the trafficker. Instead of high-paying welding work, he was held against his will in an apartment without electricity or water, had his passport confiscated and his movements restricted, and was forced to work in a Thai restaurant without pay. He finally escaped—and through the EEOC’s lawsuit, was given the promised job at Trans Bay, along with monetary relief, educational benefits, and a visa enabling him to remain in the country and to be reunited with his family.

“Even though I was exposed to the worst in America, but at the same time I could also see the best that this country has to offer,” he told the Commission. “For example, the law that brought justice for the residents who were less fortunate and were being taken advantage off and never dreamed that this type of justice would exist in the society.”

Florrie Burke of Freedom Network USA, an umbrella organization of non-government organizations combating forced labor, discussed best practices for identifying victims and pursuing civil litigation. She praised the EEOC and particularly two regional attorneys for patiently developing and pursuing complicated labor trafficking cases—Robert Canino, regional attorney in Dallas, who brought a case against the James Pickle Co. involving men trafficked from India with the promise of well-paying jobs, but who were kept in servitude, degraded and denied wages; and Anna Park, regional attorney in Los Angeles, for her work on the Trans Bay Steel case.

“I would say that human trafficking is not only an immigration issue, it is not only a criminal issue, it is not only a moral issue or women and children’s’ issue—it is a human rights issue and needs to be regarded as such,” she told the Commission.

The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. More information about the EEOC is available at www.eeoc.gov. Specific information about the meeting, including witness statements and biographies, is available at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/meetings/1-19-11/index.cfm.