Good Morning Chair Berrien, Commissioners Ishimaru, Feldblum, Barker, Lipnic, and General Counsel Lopez. It is a great honor to be here today. Thank you for this opportunity to address you today on the issue of human trafficking.
Human trafficking is a huge industry that generates over $32 billion annual trade for traffickers and is ranked among the top four largest illegal trade in the world. It is estimated that over 12.3 million adults and children are in forced labor or forced prostitution around the world.
Victims of human trafficking can be men, women, or children of varying ages, varying educational levels and varying skills. The victims can be highly skilled and actually come into the country on legitimate visas. Unlike smugglers, traffickers can gain legitimate visas to bring in people from around the world and force them to work or provide sex against their will.
What we have seen are temporary contracting agencies bringing in workers through legitimate means under the auspices of luring people with the promise of work so that they can lead a better life. However, the victims are charged exorbitant fees that the workers can never pay because, often times, they are never paid for their work. This fee is used to subjugate and exploit the workers, forcing them to tolerate and endure intolerable situations. What emerges is a picture, unique to trafficking cases that do not exist in other cases.
One such example was a case brought by the Los Angeles District Office of the EEOC in the case of EEOC v. Trans Bay Steel which was filed and resolved on December 8, 2006 alleging that the employer discriminated against a class of workers due to their national origin.
In that case, the EEOC brought a class national origin discrimination action on behalf of a group of 48 welders from Thailand that was recruited to perform welding jobs. We brought suit alleging that a class of Thai nationals, contracted under H2B visas by Trans Bay and a third party agency, were held against their will, had their passports confiscated, had their movements restricted, and were forced to work without pay all in violation of Title VII. Additionally, some workers were confined to cramped apartments without any electricity, water, or gas.
What was unique about the case was that the workers that were trafficked were brought into the United States with legitimate visas to work in the United States as high skilled welders due to shortage of skilled welders in the area.
By way of background, Trans Bay Steel received a large sub-contract to provide services to retrofit the Bay Bridge and became the sponsoring employer for the workers in Northern California. Trans Bay contracted with Kota Manpower Co., and Hi Cap Enterprises, Inc., to bring the skilled welders from Thailand to meet the needs of the project. While Kota and Hi-Cap brought over approximately 48 welders from Thailand, only nine of them went to work for Trans Bay. The remaining welders were brought to Los Angeles and Long Beach, California and forced to work without pay at Thai Restaurants owned by Kota Manpower and Hi-Cap, and forced to work other menial jobs essentially without pay while still be charged the exorbitant fees and interest associated with the fee they were charged to come to America. They had their passports confiscated, threatened from leaving, kept in two cramped apartments and deprived of electricity, water, and gas.
At least 17 of the workers were told if they tried to leave the location where they were being forcibly held, the police and immigration officials would be called to arrest them. EEOC also contends that all the workers were made to pay exorbitant “fees” to the recruiting company which kept them in involuntary servitude. Many of the claimants leveraged huge loans against their family home, paying exorbitant interest. Ultimately, some of the workers escaped the slave-like conditions.
The actual threatening and forced labor was by the agency Kota Manpower itself. However, the sponsoring employer Trans Bay Steel was a joint employer and thus liable for the acts of its agent. The case provided a unique opportunity in that while we were unable to fully prosecute the case against the placement agency, the EEOC was able to reach a resolution with the employer, Trans Bay Steel. Trans Bay Steel was still in need of workers due to a shortage and the workers needed comprehensive relief. In the end Trans Bay Steel wanted to make things right with the workers and in forging a resolution that resulted in a win-win for not just the employer but especially the workers.
We are fortunate today to have two people with us today to talk about the case. The first is Mr. Sathaporn Pornsrisirisak who was a victim in the Trans Bay case. He will talk about the circumstances that brought him to become a victim of trafficking and what happened to him.
We also have with us today Ms. Panida Rzonca from the Thai Community and Development Center who partnered with us to make this case happen. She is here on behalf of the Executive Director Chancee Martorell who couldn’t be here today who will speak about their involvement in the case and their longstanding track record of working with victims of trafficking. She will also speak to the partnering that existed to make this case a reality.
The EEOC was able to reach a settlement in the case with Trans Bay Steel by entering into a three-year consent decree to resolve the case for an estimated $1 million in total monetary relief and compensation.
Under the decree, Trans Bay agreed to:
The EEOC worked closely with non-profit organizations such as the Thai Community Development Center, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. The partnership with Thai CDC was especially critical due to the language barrier and was invaluable in facility free communication with the claimants. CAST provided social services support such as counseling, housing, and other daily support that was required to aid the workers back into society. Legal Aid Foundation provided support in aiding the workers to seek T-visas which many of them received. Such partnering is critical to providing a comprehensive solution to the challenges that face victims of human trafficking. Because many of the trafficking victims were isolated and subjected to not only intolerable working conditions, but also living conditions, the transition back into society is challenging and unique.
Human trafficking still remains underground, and we have tapped only the tip of the iceberg. These are the most vulnerable of people because trafficking victims cannot be reached by traditional means. It is only with partnering with governmental and non-governmental organizations to work together to combat what remains a sinister manifestation of labor and sex abuses. Combating human trafficking requires a comprehensive approach by partnering and coordinating with other law enforcement entities and non profit organizations.
In conclusion, one should not have to give up their basic freedom just to work. We as the Commission, at a minimum, exist to ensure that basic right and as the workforce becomes more globalized, our role remains ever increasing more important to help those that cannot speak for themselves. As such, we at the Commission must be agile and address the manifestation of discrimination in whatever form it arises and to do it vigorously because those that are in need of our help remain out there.
In that regard, I would like to now introduce Mr. Sathaporn Pornsrisirisak who was one of the welders brought in from Thailand and forced to work in Long Beach, California. Thank you.