Catholic Charities of Louisville is hosting a national conference on labor trafficking next week at the Galt House, bringing together professionals from around the country who tackle the problem.

Marissa Castellanos, the manager of the Bakhita Empowerment Initiative — Catholic Charities’ program to combat human trafficking — tells Insider Louisville that the conference not only seeks to build capacity around investigating labor trafficking and serving its victims, but to raise general awareness around the issue, which often takes a back seat to sex trafficking when it comes to resources, prosecution and legislation.

Labor trafficking is the use of violence, threats, fraud, debt bondage and other physical or psychological coercion to force people to work against their will. Victims are both legal permanent residents and foreign nationals whose traffickers typically exert control by preying on their vulnerabilities, such as confiscating passports, physical abuse or threats related to their immigration status.

Since the National Human Trafficking Hotline was created just over a decade ago, it has identified and responded to over 6,000 cases of labor trafficking, including 1,249 cases just last year. According to NHTH figures, some of the most common venues and industries for labor trafficking are domestic work, agriculture, door-to-door sales crews and restaurants.

Castellanos notes that while most legislation, prosecutions and media reports related to human trafficking focus on sex trafficking, Catholic Charities sees nearly the same number of labor trafficking victims that it provides services to in a typical year, who have withstood the same type of inhumane abuses.

“There’s a lot of sexual violence in labor cases,” says Castellanos. “There’s a lot sexual harassment, there’s a lot of physical abuse, on top of all the other sort of psychological controls that are used. So a lot of the abuses are pretty similar, but labor trafficking just doesn’t seem to get the attention.”

While the Kentucky General Assembly has passed legislation in recent years to further crack down on human trafficking — first creating its statute making human trafficking in 2007 — she notes these bills are typically very focused on sex trafficking and “there’s a lot of work to be done on the state law in regards to labor trafficking … not just in Kentucky, but a lot of states.”

“In Kentucky, we’ve only had two labor trafficking cases go to state court since the law passed in 2007,” says Castellanos. “The first one was dismissed and the second one was acquitted. So I also think there needs to be work done on improving our state law, so there will be a few workshops that talk about legislation and law-related issues.”

The two-day conference on Oct. 24 and 25 has a twofold purpose of coordinating information and strategy among professionals across the country in the field — including law enforcement, attorneys, victim-centered service providers and business leaders — and building general awareness among the public about what constitutes labor trafficking, and how to spot, report and prevent such abuses.

Marissa Castellanos | Photo via Catholic Charities of Louisville

Castellanos says many of the plenaries, panels and workshops will be geared towards these professionals, aimed at building capacity around proactive investigations and prosecutions of labor trafficking, providing services to victims, utilizing data to identify abuses and spotting unethical supply chains that exploit such labor.

In addition to increasing trainings that are specific to labor trafficking, she says that professionals in the field need help identifying how they can leverage existing resources, noting that one of the panels at the conference will involve a Department of Labor representative explaining how the agency can help prosecutors calculate restitution for victims and help service providers with signatures for victims’ visa applications.

Castellanos says the conference will also address where the gaps exist in terms of resources and needs, noting that “there will be some funders there that can hopefully help also with ongoing research need.”

Noting that awareness of labor trafficking among the general public is key to stopping such abuses, she says the first morning of the conference will be devoted to identifying the different types of labor trafficking and the different industries it is present in.

“The hope is that folks in the community can also become more aware, not just the professionals that directly work on these sorts of issues, because ultimately community members are well positioned to identify victims and report the victims,” says Castellanos.

She also noted that the community the closest “connection to demand” when it comes to labor trafficking, as “we demand cheap goods and services, and no transparency in supply chains really exacerbates labor trafficking — not just locally, but around the world. So that connection will also be made at the conference.”

Discussing the importance of educating the public on this subject, Castellanos notes that “we’re training potential jurors. We really need jurors who are familiar with labor trafficking not just sex trafficking.”

Individuals and organizations wishing to register for next week’s labor trafficking conference can do so at the website of Catholic Charities, which costs $225.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]