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Annual Saul I. Stern Symposium Focuses on Labor Trafficking Policy Issues

On March 3, the University of Maryland School of Public Policy hosted the annual Saul I. Stern Symposium, titled “Hidden in Plain Sight: Emerging Labor Trafficking Policy Issues.” SPP students Tawni Alston, Jenna Bauer, Alexandra Gabitzer, Burcu Sagirogl and Ayesha Tahiru submitted the original proposal for the event to highlight and address an urgent and underemphasized policy issue.

Several student groups and centers at the University of Maryland co-sponsored the event, including Graduate Women in Public Policy, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, International Development Council at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, UMD SAFE Center, UMD Students Ending Slavery and International Justice Mission.

The event began with opening remarks from SPP Dean Robert C. Orr. Orr introduced Saul Stern Professor of Civic Engagement I.M. ‘Mac’ Destler. Destler recounted the origins of the Stern Symposium, which is based in the idea of students competing with proposals and then organizing and holding a half-day symposium. He lauded the students who formulated the winning proposal and for choosing a topic that perfectly meets the Stern criteria.

Destler introduced Ambassador Susan G. Esserman, founder and director of the UMD Support, Advocacy, Freedom and Empowerment (SAFE) Center. Ambassador Esserman laid a solid foundation for the forthcoming speakers and panels. She remarked that a substantially higher percent of victims are trapped in labor trafficking than sex trafficking, but less than 15 percent of the reported cases have to do with labor. These statistics are consistent with the larger trend that there is a lack of public awareness and understanding about how prevalent human trafficking is. Esserman also said the UMD SAFE Center is thrilled to be a part of SPP because the research and input from students has been very valuable.

Esserman then presented keynote speaker Luis CdeBaca, former ambassador-at-large of the Trafficking in Persons Office at the State Department. CdeBaca began by noting that people never used to talk about labor trafficking or human trafficking in general. Nonetheless, he implored, it is imperative to understand the environment that policy workers are operating under. He reflected that Maryland businesses have only begun to have as many years of freedom as they have of slavery. Maryland has been “free” for roughly 150 years, but there were a couple hundred preceding years when the entire economy was predicated on slavery. CdeBaca proceeded to discuss what slavery looks like in the modern era, including the fact that it is more difficult to distinguish labor trafficking from bad working conditions and victims are running from the traffickers as well as the government because they trust neither. Offering advice for how to combat labor trafficking, CdeBaca encouraged attendees to talk about transparency, especially in their role as consumers, and think about what they can do to change larger institutions and their more immediate surroundings.

After the keynote address, the first panel, “Labor Trafficking in Our Community,” began. The three panelists were Lillian Agbeyegbe, strategic research analyst with Polaris; Laura Ardito,  deputy director of the UMD SAFE Center; and Christine White, adjunct professor in the UMD Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. SPP student Ayesha Tahir moderated the panel. Agbeyegbe started with an overview of the Typology of Modern Slavery from Polaris, which has data on the prevalence of various types of human trafficking based on the calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888). She also discussed interventions available to the audience, grouped into awareness, advocacy, and accountability. Lastly, she highlighted the recently-released 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report from the U.S. State Department.

Ardito reiterated and emphasized several of Agbeyegbe’s remarks and underlined the distinction between labor trafficking and labor exploitation, the former of which is a trap and fits within the Trafficking Victims Protection Act definition specifying force, fraud, or coercion. As a leader of a center for human trafficking survivors, Ardito charged that it is known there are significantly more victims than are currently able to be identified, and this means more actors have to come to the table to effectively tackle the issue.

White endorsed the information presented thus far and added, “What you’re eating, what you’re wearing, what you’re using--talking about labor trafficking is thinking about how it got there--how is it that you’re able to consume it?” White also asserted that human trafficking is largely a matter of desperation. The panelists answered questions from the audience about the signs of trafficking, drivers of demand and characteristics of Maryland that make it a hotspot for human trafficking.

The second panel was “Labor Trafficking on the Global Scale,” moderated by SPP student Tawni Alston. Kimberly Mehlman (author of Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium) and Fan Yang (international relations officer at the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking in the Department of Labor) served as panelists.

Mehlman briefly reviewed four key points: the definition of human trafficking, the lack of research, misidentification of victims and secondary exploitation. Yang described the work of her office, including technical assistance and negotiating, enforcing and monitoring trade agreements. She pointed to resources such as the Sweat & Toil and Comply Chain apps and the Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor and maintained that these are intended as tools for engagement, not punishment. Yang also described a global phenomenon of good legislation with absent or insufficient enforcement and application.

In explaining why they chose the topic of labor trafficking, the student organizers from GWiPP noted, “the conversation surrounding human trafficking has been almost all focused-on sex trafficking” and “labor trafficking is rarely discussed in the policy arena; facing a lack of research, funding and general interest.” Consequently, they believed, “hosting a symposium where forced labor is the focus would be an important first step in raising awareness of the issue in [the] community” and push them as policy students to “think critically and evaluate how other factors contribute to the issue.”

SPP student Yassara Pereira found the symposium important because, “information on labor trafficking is very underrepresented, and this kind of event is a very instructive way of showing why the issue is important and why we should care about it.” Fellow SPP student Princia Calida Vas agreed with these comments, attesting, “We don’t engage in dialogue about trafficking in general, but especially about labor trafficking. There is very limited information about labor trafficking, even on the internet, so it is valuable to bring a group of speakers together who are experts on the subject.”