How human trafficking is enabled

We often associate human trafficking with a visceral image of young girls being exploited and sold for sex at the hands of ruthless pimps. Google an image of human trafficking and results of this description will be found. While this depiction reflects much of the human trafficking which is reported to authorities, it is an incomplete image of a much broader issue. Less attention is typically devoted to the trafficking of people into exploitative agricultural work, construction work, domestic work, or other non- sexual labor.

Acknowledging one form of human trafficking while remaining ignorant to all others, only addresses a fraction of what is a highly prevalent transnational crime. Society’s lack of understanding of the complexity of human trafficking is largely to blame for our crippling inability to protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.

The United States of America v Farrell illustrates the vulnerability of migrant workers and lack of public awareness of human trafficking warning signs.

Human trafficking - Crime Stoppers Australia
Resource derived from Crime Stoppers Australia, https://crimestoppers.com.au/resource/human-trafficking/.

United States of America v Farrell

In 2005, Robert and Angelita Farrell, owners of a Comfort Inn hotel in South Dakota arranged for nine Filipino workers to obtain visas to work in their hotel. 

The Farrells took care of all visa fees and drafted employment contracts for each worker. They told workers that they would not be reimbursed for travel to the US and that their visas would be denied if they revealed this to the consular authorities. Despite beginning the employment relationship financially indebted to the Farrells, the workers anticipated that their wages would enable them to promptly repay their debts.     

When the workers arrived, the couple confiscated their passports and other immigration documents. The Farrells took advantage of the workers making them work 12-16 hour days and paying them half the wages initially promised. The defendants also charged the victims for previously undisclosed fees such as unwanted food and transportation to and from work. Recognising that the workers would never be able to repay their increasing debts, the Farrells demanded that the workers obtain outside employment. 

Each worker initially expected to have two trips sponsored by the Farrells to work at the hotel. However, the Farrells’ informed their workers that no one was going to be brought back to the US for a second trip unless he or she submitted a letter requesting re-employment. The workers complied and returned to South Dakota, facing the same enslaved conditions as last time.

One evening, the Farrell’s contacted the chief of police to intimidate the workers after two had expressed a desire to leave. Sensing something was amiss after visiting the hotel, the officer removed the victims from the couple’s possession and the Farrells were subsequently arrested on the charge of conspiracy to commit peonage.

On November 2007, a federal jury found Robert and Angelita Farrell guilty of peonage, document servitude, visa fraud and making false statements. Robert Farrell was sentenced to a term of 4 years and 2 months in federal prison and his wife, Angelita, a 3-year sentence. The defendants were individually fined US$15,000 and subject to three years of supervised release following their respective prison terms.

The Farrell case stresses the underreporting of human trafficking in the US. This couple managed to forge immigration documents twice and illegally administer second jobs for their workers, while enslaving them in horrendous living conditions for some time, without triggering immigration officials, police or members of the public. 

Partially to blame for this is the inaccurate, widely held public perception of human trafficking and the culture of law enforcement.

Failing Public Perceptions of Human Trafficking

A key issue in this case was whether the victims worked voluntarily for the Farrells. While it would have been a simpler case if police had found victims chained in the Farrell’s basement, the reality is that many human trafficking cases occur within the context of a voluntary working relationship. Thus, the degree to which the victims’ work was involuntary was difficult to prove.  

Akin to many human trafficking cases, the victims initially worked voluntarily for the Farrells, testifying that they wanted to better their livelihoods in the US. The Farrells possessed strong evidence in favour of a finding that the employees were in a voluntary working relationship. For instance, the Farrells’ presented the signed contracts and the fact that the workers agreed to begin their working relationship indebted to the Farrells. Additionally , the Farrells had letters written by the workers, each requesting a second trip to the US to work at the hotel.   

In this trial, the testimony of human trafficking expert Joy Zarembka enabled jurors to better understand the behaviour of victims and assess the truthfulness of their allegations. Zarembka provided a testimony of the various warning signs in employer-employee relationships that may indicate the employee is not labouring voluntarily but rather in a climate of fear. In her opinion, there was a climate of fear in the Farrells’ relationships with their workers. 

In this way, the role of expert witnesses in human trafficking cases can be paramount to ensuring victims receive a fair trial. Experts should also play a more substantial role in public education to alleviate widely held misconceptions of human trafficking. This will equip people with knowledge of warning signs to look out for that may be indicative of human trafficking.

The culture and framework of Law enforcement

Police rely on community members to report crimes by calling 911. Their work is reactionary rather than investigatory. This is problematic for victims of human trafficking as the crime usually occurs behind closed doors or without community awareness. If the public fail to report on instances of human trafficking, the framework of law enforcement is such that police cannot protect victims or charge perpetrators.

For these reasons, Police in the US focus on the prevention of sex trafficking of U.S. female minor victims, whom they perceive to be the most vulnerable, publicly supported victims. We know from the Farrell case that human trafficking can seamlessly occur outside of the sex-slavery paradigm, however more often than not it seems that cases like these are falling through the cracks of our justice system. Human trafficking does not discriminate against gender, age or culture, it impacts girls, boys, men and women alike. The double standard of US law enforcement efforts to address the sexual slavery of US female minors, while remaining legally blind to other forms of modern slavery that exist is a true failing of the justice system.

Though the institutional weaknesses of law enforcement and lack of public awareness for human trafficking are grim, greater understanding of the problem among ordinary people like you and I will lead to increased reporting of the crime. If we acknowledge that human trafficking is happening in our communities and educate ourselves on its many variations, this will inevitably lead to a world where more perpetrators are held legally accountable for their actions.


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