On Friday, I met with a group of survivors of human trafficking. They came to the U.S. following a dream and a promise of opportunity, only to find themselves trapped and facing appalling labor conditions. As one survivor described it, it was like being “in a room with no windows or doors.”
I was deeply moved by their grit and resilience. Their stories had remarkable similarities. They worked long hours, often slept on the floor and were routinely threatened with deportation if they complained. They were verbally and sometimes physically abused. More than one had their passports taken and, despite working long hours, several earned only $300 a month.
These women demonstrated remarkable courage in seeking help and escaping their situations, sometimes with the help of law enforcement and nonprofit groups. They described the ways that they realized help was out there. One survivor found a pamphlet on labor rights that she had received at the U.S. embassy before emigrating. Another met someone at the grocery store who was able to help. One survivor had a friend who told her about organizations that could provide recourse.
In recognition of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Month, the White House just released a new strategic action plan that will increase coordination and collaboration among federal agencies charged with combating human trafficking. The plan describes the steps agencies will take to ensure that all victims of human trafficking in the United States are identified and have access to the services they need to recover and rebuild their lives.
For our part, we are working at the Department of Labor to improve our work in this area. We have investigators on the front lines in workplaces every day, who can identify exploitative labor practices and potential trafficking. With our enforcement capabilities, we can help address the continuum of labor exploitation. And our employment and training programs can help these survivors find job opportunities and become economically self-sufficient.
I am inspired by the survivors’ stories and their determination to make a difference for other workers facing similar abuse. “I want to change history,” one told me. Despite what they’ve endured, they are unbowed. They have hope and purpose. They know that they’re fighting for millions of workers like them. They want to give voice to others, and I have every confidence that they will.
Follow Secretary Perez on Twitter as @LaborSec.