Conference examines trafficking in U.S.

Record Photo by Ruby Thomas
Participants in the National Labor Trafficking Conference listened to a speaker during the event Oct. 24 at the Galt House in downtown Louisville. The two-day event included close to two dozen workshops and presenters from across the country.

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

Individuals from 28 states and the District of Columbia gathered at the Galt House in downtown Louisville Oct. 24-25 to discuss and raise awareness about labor trafficking.

“We have identified many labor trafficking cases in the community including in the Louisville area, yet awareness is incredibly low,” said Marissa Castellanos, director of Catholic Charities’ Bakhita Empowerment Initiative, an anti-trafficking program.

“We’ve noticed that labor trafficking is not addressed sufficiently,” she said. “That impacts services as well as investigations. The conference is an important way to push the narrative forward and to better address labor trafficking.”

The national conference — presented by the Bakhita Empowerment Initiative  — aimed to educate the community about labor trafficking, including how to recognize it.

The event was also held in conjunction with the Southeast Regional Human Trafficking Advisory Group, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

A 2017 report from the Kentucky Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force shows that Catholic Charities has served 71 survivors of labor trafficking in the past 10 years. More than half of the victims were foreign nationals according to the report.

Castellanos said labor trafficking is most prevalent in the restaurant and agriculture industries. And individuals here in the Archdiocese of Louisville can make a difference, she said.

For example, she noted, consumers can pay attention to the origin of the products they purchase. She encourages individuals to purchase “fair trade” products — those in which fair prices are paid to the producers in a developing country. In Louisville such items can be purchased at Just Creations on Frankfort Avenue — a fair trade store that opened in 1990 as an outreach of St. William Church in West Louisville.

“Be intentional about purchasing products made in an ethical way that doesn’t support exploitation of workers,” said Castellanos. “Consumers’ purchasing power can impact the issue globally, not just locally.”

Castellanos said individuals can also play a role by being alert. No single sign indicates a person is a victim of labor trafficking, she noted. Usually, it’s several indicators, including:

  • In a work environment, someone may seem fearful, especially of the employer.
  • The individual is in bad physical condition.
  • An individual is afraid to speak.
  • Employees work long hours.
  • In a restaurant environment, tip money is taken by the manager.

Castellanos said that if someone observes any of these conditions or suspects someone may be the victim of forced labor, they should contact the national human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Information can also be sent by sending a text message to BEFREE (233733). Representatives will report it to the local authorities, she said. Castellanos said she encourages people to program that number into their phones. She explained that having a “reasonable suspicion or concern for workers” is enough reason to call the hotline.

Calling the hotline does make an impact said Katherine Chon, founding director of the Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) and one of the speakers at the conference. OTIP is a program within the administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Chon said close to 9,000 cases of human trafficking were identified last year through the national hotline.

During an interview Oct. 24, she said her office is seeing a growing awareness of labor trafficking nationally.

“More faith-based groups are starting to take action in supporting victims,” Chon said. “It’s a national fight.”

There are many “drivers” that increase an individual’s chances of falling victim to traffickers, she said.

Immigrant and refugee groups are vulnerable. So are individuals caught up in the opioid epidemic, children in the foster care system, runaways, homeless individuals, victims of violence and people displaced by natural disasters, she said.

Chon urged individuals to “connect to local task force and coalitions” as a way to combat trafficking. “The simplest thing people can do is work with young people at risk,” she said.

The conference presented close to two dozen workshops led by local and national speakers. The conference was sponsored in part by the Church of the Annunciation in Shelbyville, Ky., St. Augustine, Christ the King, Good Shepherd, St. Martin de Porres and Immaculate Heart of Mary churches and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

To learn more about labor and human trafficking, visit https://humantraffickinghotline.org/ or to learn more about Catholic Charities’ Bakhita Empowerment Initiative, visit https://cclou.org/bakhita-empowerment-initiative/.

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