Residents can learn red flags of labor trafficking
Routt County Sheriff’s Office Detective Manuel Fajardo wants residents to understand that human trafficking is an international problem, but it can also be found in the Yampa Valley.
“It’s happening more than people realize,” Fajardo said.
Human trafficking is a complicated, intertwining issue that can be easily confused with other criminal issues such as harassment, assault, threats or domestic violence, Fajardo said. Experts say the problem of human trafficking can be broken into two categories, sex trafficking and labor trafficking.
Kara Napolitano, research and training manager at the nonprofit Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, said the Denver-based nonprofit recorded a 45% increase in calls and texts to Colorado’s Human Trafficking 24/7 hotline during the COVD-19 pandemic. Napolitano said communities struggling with housing insecurity issues can be especially problematic for labor trafficking, pointing out that questionable employers who offer housing for cold winter nights may hold leverage over employees.
“We are seeing exploitations across the board,” said Napolitano, who lives in Summit County. “It’s always been present in our lives; we just don’t talk about it. People value certain types of work more than others, and we tend to look the other way.”
Napolitano said 728 unique individuals called the Colorado hotline in 2021. The calls come from across the state, both in urban and rural areas, from people working in jobs from landscaping to live-in domestic services, from roofers to sheepherders. People in seasonal or part-time jobs, those with temporary work visas, workers in the informal economy functioning off the books, younger workers and immigrants are all especially vulnerable, she said.
“Immigrants and young people are much easier to exploit because they often don’t know their rights or feel like they don’t have access to their rights,” Napolitano said.
Napolitano said the state of Colorado defines labor trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.”
Advocates of Routt County presented a community education webinar about human trafficking in late January. Graham Hackett, social change program manager at Advocates, pointed out some red flags that community members can watch for to try to notice situations of human trafficking, including labor trafficking.
“For example, a trafficking victim may have a ‘manager’ or a ‘sponsor’ who obviously monitors their behavior and communications, dictates their movement or access to others, and makes most decisions for them,” Hackett said. “A victim may not be able to produce basic ID documents because they’re being held by their trafficker.”
The National Human Trafficking Hotline website HumanTraffickingHotline.org explains that labor trafficking includes situations where men, women and children are forced to work because of debt, immigration status, threats and violence. Labor traffickers often keep victims isolated, physically or emotionally, as a key method of control.
Kara Napolitano, research and training manager at the nonprofit Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking in Denver, listed some red flags that might indicate labor trafficking:
•Individuals selling items or begging
•Signs of physical abuse, violence, sleep deprivation, untreated injury or illness
•Groups of traveling sales or work crews sleeping in vehicles in parking lots
•Individuals who are being closely monitored by someone
•Individuals not allowed to speak for themselves
•Workers seem fearful or submissive to a person who is speaking for them
•Workers not allowed to come and go on their own or not free to leave premises
•Individuals who do not carry their own identification or money
•Mention of working conditions or wages that differ from what was advertised or promised
•Mention of unpaid work, unusual work restrictions or excessively long or unusual hours
In January, the Colorado Human Trafficking Council released their 162-page 2021 Annual Report that lists, for example, a case of “involuntary servitude” human trafficking in 2018 reported through the Craig Police Department.
Fajardo explained a few examples of what labor trafficking may look like in the Northwest Colorado region.
“In Routt County, you can find these cases in the hospitality sector like in restaurants, in hotels. You can find these cases in the construction industry,” said Fajardo, adding that agricultural labor and informal labor are other examples.
One instance of labor trafficking, Fajardo said, took place in 2019 in Routt County when seven workers were trafficked through a third party to work in construction. The individuals, originally from Central America, were bought in to work in construction and given temporary housing. Before the workers were paid for their labor, however, the third-party broker who had received the payment disappeared.
The workers were left for three days with no money for food or transportation needs and reached out to local law enforcement, which arranged for groceries and later transportation for the workers to travel back to their out-of-state homes, Fajardo said.
People engaged in human trafficking take advantage of vulnerable individuals by connecting through such avenues as specific websites, Craigslist or Facebook ads, experts say.
Researchers say the most commonly targeted individuals who may fall prey to trafficking include people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, people struggling with substance dependency, minorities, LGBTQ individuals, refugees and undocumented workers.
The workers may be trapped in a trafficking situation through coercion, lies, manipulation, fraud or force. For example, a trafficker may threaten to have the worker and their family fired or deported or to not offer a work visa in the future. Or they may physically threaten harm to the worker or the worker’s family, Napolitano said.
The Colorado Human Trafficking Council developed an awareness campaign to help Colorado residents understand and recognize the problem through the website ThisIs HumanTrafficking.com. The campaign emphasizes human trafficking can happen in any town.
“It’s difficult to know, because human trafficking often goes unrecognized, or it’s under-reported because victims are afraid, or they don’t understand what is happening,” the website explains. “Traffickers find vulnerable people and use them. Circumstances like poverty, an unstable living situation, lack of support, social and cultural inequalities, addiction or substance use, or previous trauma or victimization, are a few of the contributors that can put someone at risk.”
Experts encourage residents to educate themselves about the signs of human trafficking to be able to recognize possible situations and to report suspicious activity to law enforcement.
“It is real, and it is among us. Just report it when something weird, suspicious or strange is happening,” Fajardo said. “The best way to take action is just to contact law enforcement.”
Colorado’s Human Trafficking 24/7 Hotline and resource directory, phone 866-455-5075 or text 720-999-9724. The hotline is a survivor-informed resource created to connect individuals experiencing exploitation, individuals reporting potential human trafficking tips, and service providers in search of referral resources. The group provides support services in a safe and anonymous manner.
This Is Human Trafficking, Colorado Human Trafficking Council’s public information campaign, ThisIsHumanTrafficking.com.The council also connects interested parties to various lengths and formats of training related to human trafficking for community members, frontline professionals, law enforcement members, and health and human service providers.
National Human Trafficking Hotline, call 888-373-7888 or text BE FREE (233-733), HumanTraffickingHotline.org.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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