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Selling kids: Labor trafficking

Readers please note this story contains content of an adult nature that might not be suitable for all ages. 


For the past 14 months, the Alabama Public Radio news team has been investigating human trafficking throughout the state.  So far most of the focus has been on sex trafficking. Another major part of human trafficking is labor. 

Evelyn Chumbow is from Cameroon. She’s also a survivor of labor trafficking.

“The message I want you all to take back, to think about this, you’re dealing with humans. "These are human beings," she said. "Being a victim at such a young age, I have trauma but think about that, it could be your child, it could be your sister.” 

Chumbow told a panel of U.S. senators how she was brought to the United States from Africa. She expected to go to college. What she said she got was a life of slave labor. And the state says it’s happening here in Alabama.

Robin Wilburn is the child labor inspector supervisor for the Alabama Department of Labor. She’s also a new member of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force. Wilburn said many undocumented children are forced into jobs upon arriving in the U.S.

“We have children doing the job of an adult and they don’t have that level of safety that an adult would have," she said. “They’re also doing jobs that are long hours on their feet, cold conditions or very hot conditions it just depends on what job they have.”

Many of these children are working in meat processing plants, agriculture and construction. Most are coming from Central America, Guatemala in particular. Wilburn said they first have to find false ID’s to get these jobs.

“One of my young girls that was working at the meat processing plant, she was fired after two days because somebody else was already using that name and social security number,” she said.

And when her bosses found out, they don’t seem to worry.

 “They told her to get new papers and come back,” Wilburn said.

The process sounds cheap and easy if you’re okay with breaking the law. But Wilburn said it’s not.

“In interviews with them, they’re paying anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 dollars. I don’t know who the source is they get their IDs from but most of the driver’s licenses that we looked at were from neighboring states, Tennessee and North Carolina," she said.

State raids on massage therapies in Huntsville made the news earlier this year. These are industries where sex trafficking and labor trafficking often overlap, just not clearly.

Doug Gilmer is the resident agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations for the Birmingham field office. He said when it comes to breaking the two down, you must look at them individually.

“Labor trafficking is not necessarily sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is always labor trafficking," he said. “The two main forms are sex trafficking which is the facilitation of a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion or in which the victim is under the age of 18.”

Defining labor trafficking is a little different.

“Labor trafficking is very similar in that it’s the use of fraud, force or coercion to employ, harbor, transport, and otherwise exploit a person for the purpose of forced labor, slavery, debt bondage or peonage," Gilmer said.

Peonage is when people work off a debt with labor. Congress outlawed the practice in 1867, but it’s reportedly going on now in Alabama. Immigrants trying to make a new life for themselves cross paths with people looking to exploit their situation. Gilmer said many of these people are working in plain sight.

“They’re industries where there doesn’t have to be a lot of skilled labor. So it could be, housekeeping at a hotel, dishwashers at a restaurant, cooks, could be the agricultural industry, manufacturing those sorts of things," he said.

This is where the Alabama Board of Massage Therapy comes in. Keith Warren is the executive director of the board. 

“We have approximately 50 out of the 709 that we have licensed as massage therapy establishments or that calculates to seven percent of those that are out there that we have identified and participated in that kind of activity," he said.

The board licenses and regulates massage therapists, the parlors where they work, and schools where they learn their trade. The state also inspects these businesses and investigates them if necessary.  

Warren said there are several red flags to look out for when looking for some of these illegal operations.

“Those that fit the criteria basically have facilities close to the state lines, heavy traffic area like truck stops, heavy traffic exits around the state," he said.

The courts are still sorting out the high profile case in Florida against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. It can argued that alleged Johns know what they’re looking for. Warren said how sex workers end up in situations like this may come as a shock.

“The information we’ve obtained through the investigations is that the conditions they are presented with and given when they are here are tremendously greater than the conditions they have where they originally came from," Warren said.

In other words, they’re better off turning tricks in a massage business than their former life back home. Massage therapies are a common front for human trafficking, but in Alabama the Massage Therapy Board is very active in fighting back.

“We are probably one of the very few states out of the fifty that have the authority to go and inspect an establishment and not have a complaint filed against them. So we are pretty much the lead in the nation when it comes to dealing with these kinds of complaints.”

Those fighting traffickers know the best way to stop the process is to take away their means of carrying out their practice. The state of Alabama has a new tool that helps in this effort, as well as offering another way to help the victims.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall's office came up with a new law that is designed to fight traffickers and help the victims at the same time by giving state prosecutors a specific power.

“It’s not too far akin to what we see in the fortitude side for criminal cases," he said. “To allow us in a civil setting to seek very immediate relief through a temporary restraining order and then subsequently a preliminary injunction when we are aware of a business that has been, is or will be engaged in human trafficking.”

Before prosecutors could only charge traffickers with a crime, now the victims can hit massage business owners in their wallets. Marshall said the cases in Huntsville is the first time the state has been able to use the new law. 

“It’s a wonderful tool for us to then not only seek the immediate relief, shut down a business or businesses we believe are engaged in this effort and then allow the civil court to be able to allow the case to continue," he said.

Just last week Marshall’s office hosted a summit where he hopes to take what authorities have learned in Alabama and passing it along to others.

“The largest law enforcement gathering every year is one we host for training and we have the opportunity to set the agenda," he said. "One of the agenda blocks this year will be human trafficking. We’ll bring in some experts, gives us a chance to broaden the knowledge and expand the training and hopefully create more opportunities for enforcement.”

All of the law enforcement individuals we spoke to say they are trying to help the victims. Once someone is taken out of a trafficking situation, they try to help them get some stability in their lives. Wilburn said this is especially true when working with kids.

“The teenager is not in trouble, we’re not prosecuting them and that’s why a lot of times they’re willing to answer our questions, we’ve reiterated to them that they are not being held responsible, no penalty will be issued to them and we also do not deport, we are not immigration," she said.

If you or someone you know is being trafficked, Alabama Public Radio has a list of resources to help. Got to for phone numbers and links to groups that support trafficking survivors. You can also text the word traffic to 855-353-6644.

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