Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon attorney general

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has launched a new task force intended to address the overlooked issue of forced labor.

In 2007, lawmakers passed a bill creating the crime of involuntary servitude, where a person forces, threatens or coerces another person into performing labor or services for little or no pay. The law also made it illegal to traffic people with the aim of forcing them into labor.

But despite the bill’s passage, there have been no prosecutions of labor trafficking anywhere in the state, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

Rosenblum announced the formation of the new task force on Jan. 10 that will look into labor trafficking across the state and ways to address it. The task force will be lead by Rosenblum and state Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D- Milwaukie, and will include immigration attorneys, law enforcement, district attorneys, representatives from the Mexican Consulate and others.

“Human trafficking includes both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, but almost all of our public awareness focuses on sex trafficking. What we hear so far is that labor trafficking is very real, and it is happening under the radar in all corners of the state,” said Rosenblum in a statement announcing the task force. “I want this task force to dig into this terrible crime. All sources suggest we lack the tools to identify, investigate and prosecute labor trafficking in our communities. We need to change that.”

The statement listed domestic servants, farmworkers, factory workers and other day laborers as common lines of work that may engage in labor trafficking.

The issue of human trafficking has caught the attention of the federal government. A 2017 document describing the U.S. Department of Justice’s strategy states that between fiscal years 2009 and 2016, the department increased the number of trafficking cases 79 percent compared to the previous eight years.

The document stated that labor trafficking occurs in low-skilled or temporary situations and FBI investigations into these incidents often involve foreign-born victims. It described a case where foreign workers were lured to the U.S. with the promise of good jobs on an egg farm and the chance to attend school. However, workers were ordered to live in dilapidated trailers and work physically demanding jobs for up to 12 hours a day with little pay.

Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle said in the statement that the problem disproportionately impacts women and people of color and must be addressed with a “trauma-informed approach.”

The task force will meet during 2020 and make recommendations for the Oregon Legislature’s 2021 session.

The day before the announcement, the Oregon departments of Justice and Human Services released statistics showing that there had been 746 human trafficking victims in Oregon between October 2018 and October 2019.

Multnomah County had the most at 208, followed by Clackamas County’s 138 and Lane County’s 120. Marion County was in fourth at 94. 

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.