Merged organization helps workers, human-trafficking victims

ROCHESTER — Farmworker Legal Services of New York has morphed into a statewide agency that serves workers in many industries while continuing to assist victims of human trafficking.

A year ago, the agency dedicated to fighting for the rights of migrant workers merged with an Albany organization to create the Workers Justice Center of New York and continue its advocacy for better wages and safe working conditions, explained the center’s codirector, Lewis Papenfuse.

"We’re no longer just (helping) agricultural workers, it’s any low-wager workers," noted Renan Salgado, a human-trafficking specialist with the Workers Justice Center.

And recent federal grants will help the agency continue its mission to not only advocate for workers but also to educate them about safety and aid more victims of human trafficking, Papenfuse said.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration awarded the Worker Justice Center $133,000 to provide hazard awareness and recognition training to farmworkers throughout upstate New York. Training topics will include worker rights under OSHA, heat stress, eye safety, dairy farm safety, and chemical/pesticide exposure, and training will be available in English, Spanish and Creole, according to information from the labor department.

The trafficking-awareness effort will be supported by a $288,000, two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s office of the victims of crimes, Papenfuse added. The grant will help the center hire more staff to reach more workers in these situations and provide them with legal services, he said, noting that the merger with the Albany agency provides more legal counsel for the center’s clients.

Salgado said that he already is setting up sessions with law enforcement to educate departments about trafficking.

"We want to bring awareness to the community and hopefully do some preventative work," he added.

The center also has joined with such local organizations as the Building Trades Council of Rochester to offer training to its members to identify victims of sex trafficking, Salgado explained.

During a workshop on Dec. 11, Erie County Sheriff’s Deputy Elizabeth Fildes, head of the Western New York Task Force on Human Trafficking, provided information on signs that employees are being subjected to human trafficking. The daylong session was coordinated by the center and Tom Stephens from Rochester Research Associates.

"I hope the training we do will be beneficial for people we work with and be able to build relationship with people they work with and we work with," Stephens said, adding that Workers Justice Center is a valuable community resource. "Periodically, I run across folks who have been, may not have always been treated fairly by employers, specifically people who speak other languages, and the worker’s center has been helpful to them as a referral source with those issues."

Just offering this kind of training is helpful, and she often gets tips about potential victims after such a workshop, Fildes noted.

And while sex trafficking gets more media attention nationally, Papenfuse and Fildes said that labor trafficking is just as common, especially in this region, but that it too often takes place under the radar.

"People may think, ‘What’s the big deal?’" Fildes explained. "But they don’t understand the violence or fear they have gone through."

For example, people are promised work in a certain place and they’re taken elsewhere and not paid, he said. Or, workers arrive on an H-2A visa, which allows a person to travel to the U.S. for a set amount of time, and they don’t have the work they were told they would, Papenfuse added.

"They end up in indentured servitude," he said. "Their documents are taken away and they are forced to work in abhorrent conditions."

But the Workers Justice Center has been one of the task force’s closest allies in shining a light on these cases, Fildes said.

"If they’re here legally or illegally, these people need to get … help and make sure their rights are not violated," which the center has been successfully doing, she added.

Fildes said that she has seen cases where workers have been injured and not brought to the doctor and have been permanently scarred, and women who have been raped on work sites and who were never been given the opportunity to speak with law enforcement.

Anna Dumont, spokeswoman for the Building Trades Council, said that Fildes’ information was enlightening for the members of her organization who attended the workshop, some of who were from Ithaca and Buffalo.

"We’re trying to collaborate with the folks who can positively impact the problem (of human trafficking)," she said. "And the information on the trafficking aspect is also valuable … so we know what it looks like when people are being coerced."

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