187 – Why Is Labor Trafficking So Hard To Find?

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak are joined by Rena Shahandeh and Anh Truong to shed light on the most infrequently discussed topic in human trafficking, labor trafficking. Rena is the Deputy City Attorney assigned to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office’s Anti-Sex and Labor Trafficking Program.  She has over 20 years with the City Attorney’s Office. Anh is the Director of the Anti-Sex and Labor Trafficking Program within the L.A. City Attorney’s Office.

Rena Shahandeh

Rena Shahandeh (SHA-HAN-DAY) is the Deputy City Attorney assigned to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office’s Anti-Sex and Labor Trafficking Program.  She has over 20 years with the City Attorney’s Office.  As a trial deputy in the criminal branch, she handled domestic violence, assaults with a deadly weapon, battery, and driving under the influence cases.  She quickly worked her way up to the specialized gang unit, where she was assigned to the Northeast and Pacific Community Law Enforcement and Recovery (CLEAR) units.  There, she prosecuted the City’s most hardcore gangs, including MS, 18th Street, Avenues, Venice Shoreline Crips, among others.  Most recently, Rena was in the civil branch defending complex, high-profile LAPD civil rights cases in both state and federal court.  Notably, she defended LAPD from a civil lawsuit filed by the traffickers in the notorious Guatemalan sex trafficking case involving juvenile girls.  Rena has also defended against class actions, including one involving 5,700 plaintiffs.  She has served as lead trial counsel in over 60 jury trials. Rena was previously awarded the Wiley W. Manuel Certificate for her pro bono legal work for Bet Tzedek on a home equity fraud class action.  She was also recently appointed to the Judicial Appointments Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association for a 3-year term. Rena graduated from UCLA School of Law and earned her bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley with honors and high distinction in philosophy.

Anh Truong

Anh Truong is the Director of the Anti-Sex and Labor Trafficking Program within the LA City Attorney’s Office.  He previously served as the Assistant Supervisor of the Citywide Nuisance Abatement Program, focusing on civil enforcement actions to rid problem properties of narcotics, gangs, and vice activity.  As trial and appellate counsel, Anh obtained a series of favorable published decisions, especially with respect to medical marijuana.  He is a recipient of the Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate for his work on the San Fernando Valley Peckerwoods, a white supremacist gang.  With respect to human trafficking, Anh is currently chair of the Labor Trafficking Subcommittee of the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, and he previously served on the LA Metro Taskforce on Human Trafficking.  He drafted legislation to expand civil abatement laws to address human trafficking (AB2212; Pen. Code, § 11225).  He has also filed civil abatement actions against motels that have served as bases for human trafficking, narcotics, and other illegal activities.  Prior to joining the City Attorney’s Office, Anh was with Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan LLP, focusing on securities, business, and entertainment litigation.  While in law school, Anh consulted for the Appointed Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission as well as the Pasadena Charter Reform Taskforce on recommended changes to their respective city charters.  Anh was a former Los Angeles Coro Fellow, and previously served as City Attorney James K. Hahn’s Special Assistant.   Anh graduated from U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, where he received the American Jurisprudence Award in Complex Civil Litigation.  He graduated from Occidental College with honors in Public Policy.

Key Points

  • Common misconceptions of labor trafficking include the differences between smuggling and trafficking, victims having to be physically confined, and that labor trafficking is less common than sex trafficking.
  • Their two-pronged approach includes expanding the eyes and ears of their network and creating a systematic way to detect labor trafficking. This includes:
    • Expanding awareness and strategically bringing in new partners who could make a huge difference.
    • Trying to put together passive indicators that could be used for particular industries or populations to gain more information without relying on a witness coming forward.
  • Traditional prosecution models include criminal remedies, however, this office approaches it from the civil side in order to ensure restitution for victims.


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Dave: [00:00:01] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 187, Why is Labor Trafficking so Hard to Find?

Production Credits: [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave: [00:00:30] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie: [00:00:35] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave: [00:00:37] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking, and Sandie we have an exciting pair of guests with us today.

Sandie: [00:00:49] Yes, we do, two Los Angeles City Attorneys.

Dave: [00:00:54] I am glad to welcome to the show Rena Shahandeh. She is the deputy city attorney assigned to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office anti-sex and labor trafficking program. She has over 20 years with the city attorney’s office. She has prosecuted the city’s most hardcore gangs including M.S., 18th Street, Avenues, Venice Shoreline Crips, among others. Most recently, Rena was in the civil branch defending complex high-profile LAPD civil rights cases in both state and federal court. Notably, she defended LAPD from a civil lawsuit filed by the traffickers in the notorious Guatemalan sex trafficking case involving juvenile girls. I’m also, pleased to welcome Anh Truong to the show. He is the director of the anti-sex and labor trafficking program within the L.A. city attorney’s office. He is the recipient of the Anti-Defamation leaks 2017 Sherwood prize combating hate for his work on the San Fernando Valley pecker Woods, a white supremacist gang. Anh is currently chair of the labor trafficking subcommittee of the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force and he previously served on the L.A. Metro Task Force on Human Trafficking. He drafted legislation to expand civil abatement laws to address human trafficking. He has also, filed civil abatement actions against motels that have served as bases for human trafficking, narcotics, and other illegal activities. Today’s conversation will touch on these topics including the Motel 6 case involving alleged human trafficking prostitution and narcotics. We’re so, glad to welcome both of you to the podcast.

Rena: [00:02:30] Thank you for having us.

Anh: [00:02:30] Thank you for having us.

Sandie: [00:02:32] I have just gotten to know both of you over the last couple of months and every time I talk with you I learn so, much more about labor trafficking, and so, I want our listeners to benefit from that. So, I want to start with what we’ve got wrong because I learned more from my mistakes usually. So, let’s ping pong a little bit between the two of you and give us some of the most common misconceptions about labor trafficking.

Anh: [00:03:01] The biggest one I think we come across as just the difference between smuggling and trafficking. There was a recent high-profile news story that broke about a trailer in Texas and how all these folks are found dead inside. And the headline was really you know human trafficking. And to me that that was symptomatic of a misunderstanding which is we’re not sure whether it was human trafficking or merely smuggling. And the difference, it boils down to smuggling is a crime against the borders. You’re basically crossing the borders and the participants could be willing at that point they could have agreed to pay some money to be smuggled into the U.S. and that’s smuggling. But at any point in time, it could have turned into human trafficking when they’re forced to engage in labor or other acts. And it’s that force, fraud, or coercion that changes it from smuggling into a human trafficking scenario.

Sandie: [00:04:00] Okay. Rena?

Rena: [00:04:02] Another misconception we come across all the time is that to be labor trafficked you have to be physically confined, imprisoned by barbed wire or locked doors. And the reality is that a lot of people are Labor trafficked through coercion, through lies, through misrepresentations and debt bondage. And there are real psychological reasons why people are forced to work against their will under conditions that they’re not willing to work under. So, I think that kind of flies in the face of the image that we have of people being trapped in a physically confined space.

Sandie: [00:04:41] I always struggle when I see posters for anti-human trafficking events and they have people locked up because I know that I’m walking by people in the street or in my community that are trapped in that. So, how would I know if someone is possibly a labor trafficking victim?

Anh: [00:05:03] Some of the things that we’ve trained on and heard from our victim service provider partners is that it just sometimes just takes the conversation if you’re even allowed that contact. Some folks are not allowed to have any contact with the outside world. So, for instance in a domestic servitude case where somebody is held onsite at a particular property, they perform all sorts of you know domestic work, they took care of the children but they’re never actually let outside of the property line. And so, they’re not going to have any contact. In other situations, though you can see how blatant it is. We had one reported case where it occurred in a South Bay bakery. So, some of the workers who were trafficked worked elbow to elbow with other workers who had been hired. And in that situation, there were reports that there was contact with customers and other folks who might have been able to catch that. But in those situations, for instance if a customer came in early in the day and saw a worker working there that customer may have to come back late that same day or late that night and wonder oh I’m seeing the same person there. I think that would be a tip-off for folks who are being kept in conditions for long hours and it’s not the typical worker breaks, it’s not the typical workday that you would find.

Rena: [00:06:25] In that case the other employees were actually able to see the differences in treatment of the trafficked workers. So, they were able to alert authorities of what they were seeing.

Sandie: [00:06:36] So, if you see people working in your industry and you’re in a restaurant, in a bakery, in retail that isn’t being treated the same way you are then that should alert you to at least ask a question. Are there any other common misconceptions that we should address?

Anh: [00:06:57] One misconception is that somehow Labor trafficking is less common than sex trafficking. We run across that labor trafficking sounds exotic. And so, in people’s minds, it’s somewhere far away. And I think even when you look about what happens in the U.S. most people think if they’ve heard about it is the El Monte of trafficking situation where Thai workers were brought in and held at a location with barbed wires and were forced to work. And most people have that extreme image in their mind. But labor trafficking as reported by our victim service partners really takes so, many different forms. And I think especially in this climate it’s severely underreported and we can get into that a little more in detail about some of the challenges we’re facing in this day and age.

Sandie: [00:07:45] So, you, as the people leading the subcommittee for the task force on labor trafficking, you have a two-prong approach to this. Do you want to explain that for us?

Anh: [00:07:58] Yes, I want to start, and you know we’re speaking on behalf of our office, the city attorney’s office. We can’t technically speak on behalf of the L.A. regional task force. However, some of this work is really the culmination of our partners and our folks who choose to attend these meetings and I see them as working groups. But the group has really focused on two main prongs. The first one I can speak about, and then Rena can talk about the second one. But the first prong is what we call expanding the eyes and ears of our network. And that’s really a concept of we have folks who are clearly interested and motivated to fight trafficking, who else do we need to bring to the table? And so, at every meeting, we’re talking about bringing new partners in and we’ve been a little more strategic. There’s another completely separate subcommittee focused on outreach, while we’re looking also, at outreach were more focused on specific folks who we think could make a huge difference because they’re already out there at certain locations or certain industries. So, for instance, we focused on code inspectors. And code inspectors you know you have folks the county Department of Public Health who we trained about 500 of those and they go into all sorts of restaurants and other locations. We’ve trained building and safety inspectors, housing inspectors, we have some wage and hour inspectors. And so, folks who routinely you know are out and about we want to get them involved, we want to get them trained, we want their eyes and ears. And that’s a little more strategic approach. We’ve also, added some industry groups. So, for instance, we have some clothing brands who have brought it upon themselves to really try to be on the forefront of this issue. And so, they’re involved but we’ve also, brought in Uber for instance and they’ve done already a tremendous amount. They’re just not really publicizing it, but they are doing very well on that front. And the more we can draw folks in the more we can expand that network and it addresses a common complaint that we’ve had from law enforcement over the years which is you know we’re waiting for the tip. We’re waiting for the tip, and finally, the tip comes and unfortunately, it’s five years old and there’s very little corroborating evidence. It failed, and detectives are frustrated that it’s not timely, that we’re not getting more tips. And so, this is a very basic and I feel really traditional approach to just expanding awareness and getting more eyes and ears on the problem.

Rena: [00:10:29] The second prong of the agenda really dovetails with the eyes and ears. We are trying to find a systematic way to detect labor trafficking that doesn’t rely on waiting for that five-year-old tip. So, what we’ve done is we’ve been working with service providers, community groups, and industry groups to identify trends and identify vulnerable populations that might be more susceptible to labor trafficking. So, what we’re doing is we’re compiling as much data as we can. And we’re working with data analysts to see if we can proactively detect labor trafficking. Right now, we have a really established system in place for sex trafficking detection because there’s always been a bias model. Victims of sex trafficking are more visible, they tend to be engaged in activity that’s illegal so, they’re easier to detect and there’s a system in place for that. Unfortunately, with labor trafficking the Labor itself is not an illegal activity that’s going to be detected by law enforcement. So, we have typically been very reactive, and we just rely on these tips. What we’re trying to do is put together passive indicators that we can use to a closer look at particular industries or populations to see if we can get that information without relying on a witness coming forward.

Sandie: [00:11:54] So, really truly developing protocols that are proactive instead of merely reactive. This is exciting. And I’ve talked to a lot of people I’ve been doing this longer than I want to tell you, from an international perspective as well as here in the U.S. and I often run into people who feel like sex trafficking is a more egregious crime. And so, the whole issue of putting the bad guys in prison and the traffickers, this becomes the big frame for justice. So, when we start talking about labor trafficking and you know I heard both of you talk about the victims who really, they took that job because they needed the money so, they don’t really care so, much about putting the perpetrator behind bars. They need to get paid what they are owed. And the average advocate that’s working on human trafficking doesn’t really understand the concept of civil remedies. So, I’d like to spend a little time talking about what that means and how you do that at the city attorney’s office.

Anh: [00:13:09] So, I think for most viewers the traditional prosecution model that most people think about are the criminal remedies. And so, you have a criminal proceeding, you’re seeking jail time, you may be able to get some restitution for the victim but that requires a lot of work and it’s going to be somewhat limited. The city attorney’s office what we’ve been doing, and it’s really built on a model that we’ve been working on for years to a nuisance abatement civil enforcement approach. So, under California law mentioned we have state laws that allow our office on behalf of the people of the city of California to prosecute folks who create a public nuisance at certain locations. And so, for instance, we had a recent case where we sued Motel 6 up in the San Fernando Valley and it was a location that was a site for all sorts of activities human trafficking, prostitution, narcotics, gang activity. And instead of filing a criminal case we approached it from the civil side. And so, we brought a civil enforcement action and the difference was we weren’t seeking jail time. We were seeking court orders and injunctive relief that required them to for instance hire security guards to patrol and make sure they knew who would come on and access the property. We required them to spend more money on camera surveillance equipment. We required them to change their business practices in terms of how they registered their guests and how they identified visitors who came out onto the property to visit those guests. So, this batch really is a very different approach where we’re still able to get basically we entered into a settlement. Had we gone to trial we would have requested civil penalties. And that’s another component of it. And that model actually works for a situation where if we had identified a class of victims or a population of victims we would have been able to ask for restitution for those folks as well. And just to kind of give you a parallel example there’s another section and within our office called the Affirmative Litigation Section and that’s what they do for cases are not human trafficking, it’s wage theft. They’ve been able to seek restitution for car wash workers who were getting paid I think four dollars 50 cents an hour. They’ve been able to get restitution for Filipino home health workers who were again, the company would charge clients an exorbitant amount but then they paid them probably you know $5.50 an hour. And so, you can talk about restitution as one way to get back to that victim-centered approach and that is of an overall shift that we’re seeing in law enforcement other areas is the shift to let’s talk about the victim. Are we taking care of the victim? And so, in our labor trafficking we always are concerned does the victim have shelter, or does the victim have psychological services. We have partners that can provide legal services. And on our end of course you know we hope that all that will help the victims feel more comfortable and encouraged to report to law enforcement. So, that is one thing that our office does that’s very unique in the land of prosecutors.

Sandie: [00:16:31] Wow. And I did remember in your bio that you worked on that legislation to expand civil abatement laws to address human trafficking and that’s not something that’s common knowledge it’s not on every web page, so, kudos to you and definitely my students are going to study that legislation now. I want to know a little bit more about the difference between wage theft exploitation and labor trafficking. There’s like a gray line there. How does that work because nobody can live on four dollars an hour so, we know sometimes they’re housed in substandard housing and they have to pay for that. So, how does that work.?

Rena: [00:17:14] The main difference between wage theft and actual labor trafficking is going to be the element of force, fraud, or coercion. I would say that there is sort of a spectrum because force, fraud, or coercion there are the obvious cases again like people who are being housed in a garage and not allowed to leave. But there are psychologically coercive practices in the debt bondage that are a little more of a gray area. So, really what you need to look at is was there that coercive element and how strong was that coercive element.

Sandie: [00:17:52] Give me an example of the coercive element in a debt bondage scenario.

Rena: [00:17:59] For example, let’s say you have an international worker who’s here who was recruited by a labor recruiter overseas. They’re brought to the United States and their passport is taken away from them. They are told you owe us X amount of dollars for bringing you to the United States, getting you a job, and you need to pay that off and you have to work with us until you pay that off. That would be an example of a labor trafficking situation. And unfortunately, those kinds of workers are going to be constantly in debt. The debt increases over time. Sometimes there are company stores set up by the employer where they’re forced to buy all of their necessities at exorbitant prices, and that just adds to their debt. So, it’s ever-increasing debt that’s never going to go away. Substandard wages and the feeling that they’re trapped and there may be language barriers, there may be fear of immigration consequences. So, those all combined to create a really coercive environment that can trap someone even if they aren’t held behind bars.

Sandie: [00:19:08] So, then how does the investigation in that kind of case differ from the preponderance of cases on sex trafficking?

Anh: [00:19:18] I think sex trafficking the transition for law enforcement especially to take sex trafficking cases. They’re basing it on an older traditional model the vice model that we mentioned and vices prostitution and other things at least in the city of L.A. it’s very clear that at any given time you can drive to certain areas of the city south L.A. the figure or corridor or up in the San Fernando Valley. The support of the corridor certain times and you will find sex trafficking going on. And so, for LAPD and other law enforcement they have a model that’s been used, they’re just tweaking it. They know how to deploy officers at a certain period of time and how to do an operation and they will get cases with their time spent. Labor, unfortunately, it takes so, many different forms and we’re still on the tip of the iceberg in trying to figure out all the forms it’s taking. But that’s what’s harder for our law enforcement to get their arms around is how do we deploy people. How do we spend our time? And is it really a case by case individual example where it’s a domestic servitude case. That’s fine, you can look at a resident. But let’s say you have folks at a different location for a garment that’s not listed as a business for a garment. How do you do that kind of investigation? And I think those questions do present a challenge for law enforcement to take a look at and say we have only so, many resources and so, much time. How do we effectively do that? And I think that’s where the regional task force and our work is trying to bridge by saying if we systematically look at this or we expand our eyes and ears we may give you a heads up or at least you know direct you in a certain area so, that you can start systematically investigating rather than again just waiting for that tip that may not ever come through.

Sandie: [00:21:12] So, as a community how do we begin to build momentum. Because I know that you know a lot of people in this field their district attorneys, their elected officials, sheriffs, all of this across our nation. And so, they’re very in tune with what people are interested in. And so, as just community advocates how can we drive the value of identifying labor trafficking and finding these civil remedies. I think my question is around the media hype of arresting the bad guys, throwing them in jail, going in and having a trial, and then the bad guys go away, and everybody goes out to celebrate. And the cops you know they won. And so, there’s nobody that goes to jail, but somebody gets that restorative justice is I think the message I want people to begin to understand about civil remedies. Am I on track at all?

Anh: [00:22:19] Yes so, even within our office the city attorney’s office has restorative justice programs. So, this is not isolation. I think our office recognized that that’s an increasing trend, folks want to look outside of the traditional criminal justice system. We’re clogging the courts, where you know putting stress on a system that’s already handling so, many other things. And I think it is time to be creative. It’s time to think outside the box. And I’ve joked with Rena all the time in a different heyday ten years ago we never would have been allowed to do this type of work. And it’s really to the credit of our elected city attorney Mike Feuer who can think broadly to say okay let’s assign you to this important work and let’s figure out how to do it. I think within the community I always start with once you know that this is going on, it’s something that doesn’t leave you. And so, I want everyone who participates in our meetings or whatever we do in our training to go back in their lives and have a hard look at whether it’s an organization that they’re working with or their community groups. You know I bring up churches, for instance, our office has a faith-based initiative where we’re talking to church leaders and other folks and that directly comes from one case I remember domestic servitude case where a woman was held at a property, never allowed to go offsite except on occasion. Frequently the traffickers would hide her in the trunk of their car and let her out at a church. And the only contact she had was sitting for that service and then running back and being hidden in the car. Now in your churches, had you just taken the time to go hey who is this, your new, you know that conversation might have caught that situation earlier. And so, I think that that’s the challenge I send people back to is not to say we give you training and it only happens in this particular situation. It’s really is, now that you’re sensitized, go back to your life and look at your life, and your connections, and your groups, and your affiliations and see within your sphere of influence who you can pull in.

Sandie: [00:24:29] You guys are pioneers. Rena, do you want to give us some closing remarks? I know you’re great at that.

Rena: [00:24:38] Sure. I think it’s really important and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to discuss labor trafficking because this is one of the most under-discussed topics in human trafficking. I would encourage anybody who has an interest in learning about labor trafficking to get involved in their community. They can get involved if they’re in the Los Angeles area with the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force. They have general meetings, they have an outreach subcommittee. Get involved with your church with faith-based organizations. There are so, many organizations that have an interest in this that all work together there are coalitions of people. I would say the Asian Pacific Islander human trafficking task force has done tremendous work in this area. Pepperdine law school is doing great work in this area. There’s a group called The Optimists International, they have been doing great work with human trafficking and supporting victims of human trafficking. Another thing that there’s a great need for is there are hotline posters designed to provide both the national and the California human trafficking hotline numbers to victims. We need volunteers to put those up, to talk to organizations about putting those up, and just to get the word out in your own sphere of influence. So, I think that’s really important, and I appreciate the opportunity to bring this to light.

Sandie: [00:26:07] So, we’re back to the eyes and ears and expanding the role of the community in identification. Twenty seconds Anh for your closing.

Anh: [00:26:17] I think the thing that I want to highlight is that I’ve been involved you know tangentially or otherwise with human trafficking for a while and this is such a great time for collaboration. So, I’m very heartened by the collaboration I see among agencies the silos and the walls between different agencies are breaking down and we’re seeing that more than ever. I’m happy to see that part. The other part though is if I were a trafficker, this is such a great time to do that as well because they are taking advantage of the immigrant climate and the concern that plays right into their hands that they can report folks and they get deported. You have folks you know now under economic pressure with homelessness and other economic concerns. And so, what I’m concerned about is you have an increase in the vulnerable population at the same time that you have greater collaboration among agencies and law enforcement.

Sandie: [00:27:14] That’s a lot to think about. And I’ve got lots of notes and I’ll be e-mailing you and we’ll set up our next podcast to cover some more of this. Rena, I want to know more about the Guatemalan case, and just so, many things but we have to sign off now. We’ll put links to the things that Anh and Rina mentioned in our show notes and we’ll look forward to talking to both of you again. Thank you so, much.

Rena: [00:27:41] Thank you.

Anh: [00:27:42] Thank you.

Dave: [00:27:43] Thank you so, much, Anh and Rena. We’re so, grateful for your wisdom and experience. And Sandie, there’s so, much that we all have to learn and discover in order to end human trafficking. And we invite you to take the first step as well. If you haven’t already, hop on to the Website and download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, a quick start guide to ending human trafficking. It will teach you the five critical things that Sandie and the Global Center for Women and Justice have identified that you should know before you join the fight to end human trafficking. You can get access right now by going to endinghumantrafficking.org. And we also, would invite you to consider learning more if you are wanting to learn more about human trafficking to learn more about the Ending Human Trafficking Certificate Program that’s offered here at Vanguard University which of course houses the Global Center for Women and Justice. You can learn more about that also, at endinghumantrafficking.org. We’ll be back in two weeks with our next episode. Sandie, thank you as always. T.

Sandie: [00:28:51] Thank you, Dave.

Dave: [00:28:53] Take care.

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