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Alaskans should continue working together to stop labor and sex trafficking

  • Author: Heidi Drygas
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published July 13, 2015

The statistics are horrifying: an estimated 21 million people live in slavery, and a quarter of them are children. Most child slaves are girls forced into prostitution or pornography. But human trafficking isn't limited to the sex trade. Many labor trafficking victims are forced to work on construction projects, in massage parlors, or in restaurants. Alaska has not been spared from these crimes.

The Alaska Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Administration enforces some of our core labor laws related to minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor. Our wage and hour investigators have seen firsthand what labor trafficking looks like in Alaska. One recent horrific example is a Latino youth who may have been trafficked to Alaska to work in an Asian restaurant. His employer is alleged to have made him work as many as 20 hours per day, refusing to give him bathroom breaks. This boy claimed to work so continuously he would urinate himself while working the cook line. Made to work until after the buses stopped running, he said he had to walk home late at night, even in the winter.

Our investigators have found other disturbing evidence of trafficking: large groups of construction workers who slept in sleeping bags on the floor at job sites. Some employers traffic illegal immigrants to Alaska, then try to put them at work on public projects, stealing wages from the workers, and stealing jobs from Alaskans.

In 2013, a state task force convened to address sex and labor trafficking. The Cook Inlet Tribal Council staffed the task force, which had strong support from then-first lady Sandy Parnell. Task force recommendations included enhanced interagency coordination and raising awareness of trafficking through the media.

At the Labor Department, we are devoted to doing our part to address labor trafficking, including addressing the recommendations in that report. The first step is public awareness: if you see evidence of trafficking, know someone who might be a victim of trafficking, or are a trafficking victim yourself, call our wage and hour office at 907-269-4900. The department is a certifying agency for the U and T visa, tools Congress established to protect victims of trafficking and slavery. Trafficking victims can receive U and T visas to escape dangerous trafficking situations. We will work with victims to protect them from their abusers and get their money back if they were victims of wage theft. In some cases, we have recovered thousands of dollars employees lost to wage theft.

Many individuals, organizations, and government agencies are involved in the fight against trafficking. The FBI conducts criminal investigations, the federal Department of Labor investigates labor trafficking crimes, and the local police departments work closely with their federal law enforcement counterparts. A local organization, the Alaska Institute for Justice (907-279-2457), provides legal services to victims of labor and sex trafficking. The Institute for Justice has translators who can talk to victims in many languages, which often is critical for solving trafficking crimes.

Since Gov. Bill Walker took office, Labor has ramped up its efforts to expand awareness of labor rights. Combating labor trafficking is a critical component of this effort. We are publishing "Know Your Rights" guides for workers in multiple languages, conducting investigations into potential trafficking situations, and working with our governmental and nonprofit partners to help trafficking victims. Of course, the vast majority of businesses operate legally and ethically — the few who don't undercut legitimate entrepreneurs.

You as a citizen are a critical partner in this effort. Our investigators only learned about that Latino youth who had been trafficked because a customer at the restaurant noticed something was wrong and managed to get him to a wage and hour office.

Please join us in this effort to make our community safer: Contact our local wage and hour offices if you know a labor trafficking victim, are a trafficking victim yourself, or think that you might see evidence of trafficking. We can make a difference by helping one trafficking victim at a time.

Heidi Drygas is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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