To stop sex trafficking, we need to reward whistle blowers

Hartford Courant: 21.June.2019: Op Ed by Krishna Patel and Richard Schechter: On May 29, Connecticut became the last state in the nation to require nail salons, estheticians and eyelash technicians to obtain and maintain an operating license and for their employees to receive mandatory training.

One of the rationales for this legislation is to make it more difficult for such establishments to be a front for sex trafficking and to prevent salons and spas from exploiting workers.
 
Too often, workers in the beauty services industry are subject to fraudulent or coercive hiring practices, wage theft, debt bondage, long hours and exposure to dangerous chemicals. As advocates working to eradicate all forms of these human rights abuses, we recognize that legislation alone is not a panacea.
 
So before our legislators pat themselves on the backs for finally joining the fight against these horrific human rights abuses in the beauty services industry, it’s important to examine what more can be done to eliminate modern-day slavery and stop the exploitation of others for personal gain.
 
Truly succeeding in eradicating modern-day slavery will require a modern solution. In other words, all hands on deck — the manicured hands of consumers, the overworked hands of state officials and the skillful hands of those employees that administer the nail, skin and eyelash treatments at these establishments.
 
First, participation by consumers is absolutely necessary. Inspections and regulation of nail salons and other similar businesses are important, but consumers themselves are in the best position to help workers, by monitoring for signs of trafficking and labor abuses. Warning signs include businesses that only accept cash payments, a manager who is forceful, cruel, or controlling of their staff members, unusually cheap prices (in an industry that appears not very profitable given the current price structure), or withdrawn and meek employees. If patrons of these establishments see the signs of labor exploitation or sex trafficking, they must be encouraged to report them to experts who know how to properly investigate their concerns.
 
Connecticut should become the first state in the nation to offer patrons who report trafficking a portion of the fines levied against the establishment if there is a successful investigation of the alleged violations. When reporting tax violations and many other forms of government waste and abuse, whistleblowers are awarded a portion of the proceeds recovered. Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives proposed in the Wildlife Conservation and Trafficking Act of 2018 to give whistleblowers a portion of proceeds collected by the government for reporting violations of wildlife trafficking.
 
While tax crimes, government fraud and wildlife trafficking are serious crimes, sex trafficking and labor exploitation are equally, if not more, serious.
 
Also, participation by state officials, investigators, prosecutors and victim-care specialists is essential to investigate and, when appropriate, file civil and criminal actions against the owners of these businesses that violate licensing and educational requirements. The funds raised by the licensing and inspection regime should be used to care for victims and to hire dedicated law enforcement personnel who are given the necessary powers to audit and monitor these businesses. Only a dedicated group of regulators and victim specialists with the sole focus on helping victims and monitoring these establishments will get the job done.
 
Finally, giving a voice to the employees of these establishments is essential. There is no more effective strategy to determine if employees are being exploited or mistreated than to ask the employees directly what is happening at these businesses. Surely the state of Connecticut can make use of technology to figure out some way to obtain anonymous feedback from these employees. Not only should Connecticut ensure that these workers are licensed to perform the services they administer, Connecticut must use employee surveys or find other ways to access workers’ voices to make sure that these business owners cannot exploit their workers.
 
Without these types of approaches, we fear that the current licensing and education legislation will be nothing more than a temporary polish. It looks good at first, but its effectiveness will sadly fade over time.
 
Connecticut lawmakers have a chance to make lasting changes in this industry. While we may have been the last state in the nation to establish these requirements, Connecticut can become the first to reward whistleblowers.
 
Krishna Patel is the justice initiative director at Grace Farms Foundation and president of Unchain. Previously, she served as a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice from 1999-2015 and was the deputy chief of the national security and major crimes unit for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut.
 
Richard Schechter, senior adviser to the justice initiative at Grace Farms Foundation, served as a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice from 1987-2016 as a senior litigation counsel in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Connecticut as well as the deputy criminal chief, a senior litigation counsel and an assistant United States Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of New Jersey.