MILWAUKEE — The crime of human trafficking is starting to become a more well-known issue in our community. However, many people think of sex trafficking, not necessarily the labor aspect of this crime.
But labor trafficking can be big business, and actually less risky than sex trafficking, meaning the perpetrators can fly under the radar and work with legitimate businesses.
In Wisconsin, according to the most recent Uniform Crime Reporting Data available by the FBI, from 2017 to 2019 there were 244 human trafficking offenses reported, and only 20, or 8 percent, were considered involuntary servitude offenses.
The I-Team spoke with retired Wisconsin Department of Justice Special Agent Ken Peters about human trafficking crimes he witnessed in his 20-year career. Because of prior undercover work, he asked us not to show his face.
He tells us the data doesn't tell the whole story, mainly because human trafficking crimes, particularly labor crimes, are largely underreported.
"I think the general consensus is a sex trafficker is going to get hit harder, and it's more risky to be a sex trafficker than it is to traffic labor," Peters said.
The victims in these cases often come to the country legally, through a work visa. Those visas have strict instructions, and traffickers can take advantage of them to exploit workers into complying with their demands. Typically these are third-party recruiters or labor groups, and not the companies, farms or organizations themselves.
"The third party will charge them for travel, for food, for clothing, for expenses and it’s almost like an indentured servant because they control those variables and they control those costs. So those individuals get stuck into that labor trafficking mode," Peters said. "The two entities that make out are the third party that’s doing it and the end-user."
Mariana Rodriguez, the head of the UMOS Latina Resource Center, told the I-Team those end-users like the farms and businesses that benefit from labor trafficking should be held accountable, but it's often the third-party labor group that takes the fall.
"Who would question that those very successful lucrative businesses would be connected to anything in terms of trafficking victims?" she said. "Enslaving them and abusing them."
The I-Team found in 2019, members of a labor group called Garcia & Sons (as well as several other names) were federally charged with labor crimes after bringing Mexican nationals from Georgia to Wisconsin, where some worked on a farm in Mount Pleasant.
The farm owners and workers were not named in the federal indictments.
"There are occasions where the end-user does not know," Peters said. "There are third parties that disguise themselves as temp services."
Last summer the I-Team broke the news of an investigation at the Walworth County Fairgrounds regarding labor trafficking accusations. Federal investigators uncovered a scheme to allegedly reroute workers from Mexico and Honduras who were bound for Michigan to Wisconsin instead, where they worked jobs they never agreed to and received less pay than was promised. One person has been federally charged in that case.
The general manager of the Walworth Agricultural Society Larry Gaffey told the I-Team they were misled by the third-party group after filling out what seemed like legitimate paperwork to apply for workers, adding that the U.S. work visa program is a minefield to navigate. He says the fairgrounds have no plans to ever seek out workers here on temporary visas after the experience.
"That's how traffickers work," Rodriguez said. "Contractually they should be provided lodging, they should be provided food. And so the contractor will manipulate that and say 'we're going to take you somewhere to get food,' but they'll start seeing deductions and they don't know why that is."
Peters adds businesses may get into agreements, sometimes unknowingly, with recruiters because they offer better prices. In order to hold an end-user accountable, investigators would need to prove they knowingly violated the law.
"When you have a large or legitimate business or organization utilizing the labor it almost legitimizes the labor trafficking, because people see it's a business, might be a staple in the community, and they may not think twice about somebody actually being trafficked," Peter said. "But I think it all boils down to, which is part of the investigation, is the contracts between the third party and the end-user and what those contracts say."
The I-Team asked Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul about his office's efforts to fight labor trafficking. He echoed what Peters said regarding the lack of reporting is the top obstacle. Something he hopes continued awareness and attention may help solve.
"Making sure that people realize that law enforcement wants to work with them, that we are encouraging them to report so that we can go after the people who are committing a serious crime here, which is human trafficking," Kaul said.
Peters adds, the time victims are in the country also poses a challenge. These cases take time to build, and workers may be in the country for a few months.
"There's very little talked about labor trafficking," Peters said. "And that's where I think it's the awareness is where we need to start to let people know this is an issue."
- UMOS Latina Resource Center Crisis Line: (414) 389-6510
- Wisconsin Department of Justice Information on Human Trafficking
- National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1-888-373-7888.