Oregon creates panel to address labor trafficking

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is pictured at her office in Portland in 2016. 

Thirteen years after Oregon lawmakers adopted a law against labor trafficking, there have been no prosecutions of the crime in the state’s courts, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

On Friday, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced the creation of a new Labor Trafficking Task Force to try to change that.

The task force will study labor trafficking across Oregon and identify ways state lawmakers and other leaders can address the problem.

The state made involuntary servitude a labor trafficking crime in 2007.

Labor trafficking includes the use of threats of violence and coercion to force people to work against their will, sometimes with no or little pay or inhumane conditions. Common industries that may engage in labor trafficking include domestic servants, farmworkers, factory workers and other day laborers.

“Human trafficking includes both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, but almost all of our public awareness focuses on sex trafficking,” Rosenblum said in a statement. “What we hear so far is that labor trafficking is very real, and it is happening under the radar in all corners of the state. I want this task force to dig into this terrible crime. All sources suggest we lack the tools to identify, investigate and prosecute labor trafficking in our communities.”

Among the major challenges to prosecutions: Undocumented workers are reluctant to come forward because they fear deportation. There are language barriers and a lack of trust in law enforcement, according to prosecutors and police.

Rosenblum will lead the task force along with state Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie. The group includes immigration lawyers, organized labor representatives, law enforcement, district attorneys, representatives from the Mexican Consulate and other state agencies.

“While significant work has been done to understand the impact of labor trafficking at the national level, there has been no organized attempt to gather information in Oregon,’’ Rosenblum said.

The task force will meet throughout the year and make recommendations for the 2021 legislative session.

In 2018, federal prosecutors in Oregon pursued their first forced labor case in federal court in Oregon in recent history, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hannah Horsley said.

A former owner of two Thai restaurants fraudulently obtained visas to bring cooks from Thailand to work for him and then compelled them to work long hours with minimal pay. He was sentenced to three years and one month in federal prison. That federal case resulted from a tip to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., which was forwarded to federal prosecutors in Oregon in 2015.

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