How New York Lawyers Can Help Curb Human Trafficking
New York lawyers can help curb human trafficking in the state’s labor market by tapping into a wide range of existing laws and social services meant to help trafficking victims take back their lives. Yet lawyers need to recognize the telltale signs surrounding these victims and understand how to use the laws and resources that can help pull victims out of the labor and sex trafficking quagmire.
The New York State Bar Association on Thursday gave lawyers guidance through a CLE program, “The Impact of COVID-19 On Human Trafficking In The Labor Market.” The session also commemorated the U.S. government’s designation as January as National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a recognition made since 2010.
“Traffickers thrive in the shadows,” said panelist Nora Cronin, adjunct professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. With expanded awareness of victims’ plights, lawyers, along with health workers, are in a unique position to extend help to these traumatized workers. “We need to use any moment we can, when they are away from their traffickers, to help them,” she said.
Margaret J. Finerty, panel moderator and a partner at Getnick & Getnick in New York City, said 2007 was a watershed moment with the creation of the New York State Interagency Task Force on Human Trafficking. “Yet many sex and labor trafficking victims are hiding in plain sight,” said Finerty, who is NYSBA’s representative on the task force. “COVID has exacerbated the problem.”
The task force is co-chaired by the commissioners of the Division of Criminal Justice Services and the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. It aims to ensure that law enforcement agencies and social service organizations have the necessary training and education to coordinate and implement the significant changes in Penal Law and Criminal Procedure Law that led to the New York State Anti-trafficking Law in 2007. It created the crimes of labor trafficking and sex trafficking and provides immunity for victims and benefits and services. There are also regional task forces.
Estelle Davis, counsel to the Division of Immigrant Policies and Affairs in the New York State Department of Labor, said labor trafficking victims face many obstacles that keep them from leaving their employers or reporting horrid working conditions to authorities. While many workers are undocumented, others cross the border with valid work visas only to have their employers confiscate their passports. Workers are threatened with violence or physically abused. They are locked in the basements of restaurants and laundries. Threats are made against family members living in the state or even in the worker’s home country. The most common situation are threats made to call the police about a worker’s immigration status.
“Why do they stay?” Davis asked. “The employer is their primary source of information in the United States. They don’t speak English. They’ve experienced trauma. It is a rational belief for them to believe these threats.”
She added that New York State labor laws apply to workers regardless of their immigration status and employers that do not pay minimum wage or overtime pay, force workers to clock out yet still keep them working, or appropriate their tips are violating these workers’ rights.
One tool lawyers can use when they suspect a trafficking situation is the New York State referral process. This simple form can be filed by any social or legal service provider to alert authorities to an illegal trafficking condition. Staff from the Division of Criminal Justice Services, consulting with the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, review the referrals to determine an individual’s eligibility for assistance.
Another tool lawyers now have to help trafficking victims recover and create new lives is the Survivors of Trafficking Attaining Relief Together Act . Signed by New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul in November 2021, the law clears the records of human trafficking victims for convictions resulting from the period of exploitation. Before the act’s passage, survivors could only petition the courts to clear convictions for prostitution.
Gabrielle Masih, a social worker and referral manager at Restore NYC, said the nonprofit agency works with lawyers and helps human trafficking victims rebuild their lives and access safe housing, food, financial help, support in obtaining visas and mental health services. The START Act will help a private criminal defense attorney, for example, expunge the criminal charges a labor trafficking victim acquired while working as a drug mule. “That will help the person find safe work,” she added.
The pandemic, with its large-scale layoffs, heightened the vulnerability of trafficking survivors and handed traffickers more opportunities. Masih said 80% of the organization’s clients lost their jobs when the pandemic hit in March 2020. These people lost their financial resources and traffickers took advantage.
“Traffickers don’t look at people as people. They look at survivors as vulnerabilities and how they can exploit them,” Masih saod, adding the agency’s goal for 2022 is to keep helping these survivors find safe work.