Hidden in Plain Sight: Labor Trafficking in Michigan — by Attorney Nakisha N. Chaney

At any given moment, 2.4 million men, women and children are trafficked to provide, among other things, forced labor.[i]  They are victims of human trafficking – a modern-day slave trade that is valued at an estimated $32 billion[ii] and is second in scope only to the illicit drug trade.[iii]  They are invisible victims, hidden in plain sight, and found in nearly every country and industry.  They are people who are being trafficked to, from and within the United States.  And it’s happening right here in the State of Michigan.

What Is Labor Trafficking?

The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”) defines labor trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”[iv]

Types of Labor Trafficking

Generally speaking, there are several types of labor trafficking:

Debt Bondage.[v]  Debt bondage, also known as “bonded labor,” arises when a laborer incurs an initial debt to someone, often in the form of an employment recruitment fee or an advance for shelter, travel, food or equipment expenses.  The laborer agrees to work off the debt through labor, but is often put into circumstances which make repayment impossible (such as when the employer fails to pay wages or makes large deductions from wages for newly incurred debts).

Forced Labor.[vi]  Forced labor, or involuntary servitude, exists when a worker is compelled to remain in servitude by, among other things, actual or threat of physical harm and/or abuse of the legal process.

Child Labor.[vii]  Child labor occurs when children are engaged in forced labor, bonded labor or labor in contravention of child labor laws, or they are recruited to work in armed conflict, drug running, pornography or other illicit activities.

In the United States, labor trafficking victims are found in nearly every major industry including, agriculture, domestic service, manufacturing, janitorial service, construction, hospitality, health and elder care, and strip clubs.[viii]  Notably, there is no single profile of a labor trafficking victim.  They are men, women and children.  Many victims are foreigners – both those who are lawfully present and those who are undocumented.  Others are citizens.  They are recruited from within the United States and are brought in from nearly every region of the world, including Central and South America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Foreign labor trafficking victims can be lured into the United States through a variety of schemes, including through promises of bona fide employment, educational opportunity and a better quality of life.  Others might be forced or smuggled across the border for the purpose of trafficking them once in the country.

Foreigners – legal and undocumented – are particularly susceptible to trafficking, in large part because of their limited language skills, unfamiliarity with U.S. laws, fear of reprisals, fear of criminal prosecution or immigration detention, and fear of deportation to countries in which they may face retribution by those complicit in the trafficking, including in some instances, foreign governmental officials.[ix] In addition, traffickers may prefer children, both foreign and U.S. citizens, because they are more easily controlled, cheaper to sustain and less likely to complain or demand better working conditions.[x]  Notably, the range of victims in a given trafficking event can involve anyone from a single victim held in domestic servitude to hundreds of agricultural workers held in debt bondage.

Recognizing a Possible Trafficking Victim

 Traffickers go to great lengths to conceal victims, including coaching victims on how to answer questions and falsifying records.  However, there are signs that may indicate a person is a trafficking victim.  Those signs include, but are not limited to, when the worker is:

•            unable to come and go at will;

•            constantly chaperoned;

•            unpaid, paid very little or paid only through tips;

•            required to work excessively long hours or is not provided breaks and days off;

•            afraid of employer; or

•            working in a facility or in an environment with high security measures.

Victims may also:

•            appear malnourished;

•            avoid eye contact;

•            have few possessions;

•            lack control over their money or have no bank account or financial records;

•            lack control or possession of his/her identification papers; or

•            be unable or unwilling to speak for themselves.

Undoubtedly labor trafficking victims have many differences, including age, sex, race, nationality, citizenship and immigration status.  However, these victims often share a common reality – one that is marked by inhumane living conditions, merciless working hours, burdensome production requirements, and brutal consequences for attempting to escape or failing to satisfy labor expectations.  In these circumstances, traffickers exercise complete control over their victims.  They commonly compel submission through, among other means, actual or threatened physical or sexual violence against the victim or his or her family; confiscation or destruction of identification and immigration papers; actual physical confinement (including the use of locked or guarded facilities); and the threat of arrest and deportation. 

600 Thai Agricultural Workers Held in Debt Bondage

American company Global Horizons recruited an estimated 600 Thai workers to work in the U.S. agricultural industry.  Recruiters promised the workers good salaries, plenty of hours and decent housing.  In exchange, the workers signed an employment contract and agreed to pay a “recruitment fee.”  The fee ranged between $9500 and $21,000.   Workers borrowed money to pay the fee or offered family land as collateral.  Others agreed to work it off in the U.S.  The workers, who dreamed of providing a better life for themselves, found themselves trapped in a nightmare once they arrived in the United States.  Laborers, sent out to work on farms across the country, faced harsh working conditions for little to no pay.  In one location, workers were crammed into a large shipping container with no plumbing or no air conditioning.  At other locations, guards were hired to make sure workers did not escape living quarters.  In addition, recruiters, or those complicit with the scheme, confiscated the laborers’ passports and threatened workers that if they escaped they would be arrested and sent back to Thailand. Deportation would have left the laborers with no way to repay the debts and would possibly have left their families destitute. When brought to its attention, the federal government launched a multi-agency investigation.  To date, authorities have indicted eight people, including the CEO of Global Horizons, several of its employees and two Thai labor recruiters.[xi]

Labor Trafficking in Michigan

Michigan’s labor trafficking victims are found in many of the same industries in which people are trafficked nationwide, including domestic service, strip clubs, restaurant service, and agriculture.  Though only a handful of labor trafficking cases originating in Michigan have been prosecuted, the actual incidence of labor trafficking is believed to be higher.[xii]  Between 2009 and 2011 alone, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) received 26 reports of labor trafficking in multiple industries and businesses, including domestic service, agriculture, restaurants, door-to-door peddling and nail salons.[xiii]  And those are only the reported cases.

Teenage Girl Forced Into Years of Domestic Servitude

 In 1996, Joseph and Evelyn Djoumessi, residents of a Detroit suburb, falsified documents to bring 14-year-old “Kara”[xiv] into the United States.  Kara agreed to take care of the couple’s two young children and do housework in exchange for being taken care of and sent to school.  However, things did not work out that way.  For three years, Kara was a domestic slave.  She worked every day from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. doing housework and caring for the Djoumessis’ children.  She was neither compensated, nor sent to school, and she was forced to sleep in a dilapidated, dark and sometimes-flooded area of the Djoumessis’ basement.  The Djoumessis did not allow Kara to use the home’s showers nor did they provide her with basic necessities, such as feminine hygiene products.   They further prohibited Kara from leaving the house except to accompany the Djoumessis’ children.  When Kara failed to perform her work satisfactorily she was beaten and on three occasions Joseph Djoumessi sexually assaulted the enslaved teen.

In early 2000, a neighbor notified police about Kara’s situation.  The State of Michigan charged Joseph Djoumessi with multiple crimes, including kidnapping, criminal sexual conduct and third-degree child abuse.  He was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct and child abuse, for which he was sentenced to a 9-15 year term, with a concurrent one-year term.  Federal authorities also charged the Djoumessis with, among other things, holding and conspiring to hold Kara in involuntary servitude.  Evelyn Djoumessi was convicted by jury of conspiracy.  In a bench trial, the judge convicted Joseph Djoumessi on all counts and sentenced him to 17 years imprisonment and ordered him to pay $100,000 in restitution. [xv]

Notably, Michigan may be an especially attractive location for traffickers.  It is a border state, making it a point of entry for foreign victims coming into the United States, and it borders Ohio, which some characterize as a human trafficking hub.[xvi]  In addition, Michigan houses industries in which trafficking is prevalent (including agriculture and exotic dancing), it suffers widespread poverty, and it’s home to a number of vulnerable populations, including impoverished persons, at-risk youth and undocumented migrants.

Eastern European Women Forced to Work in Detroit-Area Strip Clubs

In January 2011, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement announced the arrest of Veniamin Gonikman, a U.S. citizen and fugitive wanted for, among other things, trafficking in persons and forced labor.  Gonikman is alleged to have conspired with others to operate “Beauty Search, Inc.,” a cover business for a trafficking scheme through which traffickers smuggled Eastern European women into the country and forced them to work in Detroit-area strip clubs.  Gonikman, along with his associates, allegedly compelled the victims to work 12-hours a day, six days a week, and to hand over all of their earnings.  It is estimated that the conspirators extorted more than $1 million dollars from their victims.  The traffickers, among other things, beat the women if they refused to work and held them in isolation.  Seven of Gonikman’s associates were previously convicted.  Several of them received prison sentences ranging from seven to 14 years.[xvii]

Federal and State Anti-Trafficking Laws

The problem of human trafficking is not going unaddressed – although there is still a great deal of work to be done.  Both the Michigan and federal governments passed laws specifically targeting trafficking.  In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, 22 U.S.C. § 7101, et seq, which, among other things, criminalizes human trafficking and provides immigration relief for qualified victims.  Congress renewed its commitment to deterring trafficking and increased resources for the prosecution of traffickers and protection of victims in the 2003, 2005 and 2008 Reauthorization Acts.[xviii]  At the state level, the Michigan legislature passed in 2006 a state anti-trafficking law, MCL 750.462a, et seq.  In doing so, the legislature criminalized trafficking and provided for fines, restitution and prison sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment if a violation results in the death of another person[xix] or involves actual or attempted kidnapping, criminal sexual conduct or killing.[xx] In July 2011, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette launched the first Attorney General Human Trafficking Unit to identify and prosecute trafficking offenses.[xxi]

In addition to the anti-trafficking laws, federal and state labor and employment laws may also assist trafficking victims or law enforcement efforts.  Potentially applicable federal laws include:

  • the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and statutory involuntary servitude laws, 18 U.S.C. § 1581, et seq., which prohibit involuntary servitude, peonage and trafficking;
  • Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, et seq., which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, color, race and national origin;
  • 42 U.S.C. § 1981, which provides that all persons within the United States’ jurisdiction have certain rights, including the right to the full and equal benefit of all laws;
  • the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., which regulates wages and overtime compensation for nonexempt employees, as well as regulates child labor;
  • the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, 29 U.S.C. § 1801, et seq, which requires employers who employ migrant agricultural workers to pay wages when due (29 USC § 1822(a)); to comply with the terms of the work arrangement (29 USC § 1822(c)); and to maintain records showing the number of hours worked, the net pay received by the worker, the sums withheld from pay, and the basis on which wages are paid (29 USC § 1821(d)); and/or
  • the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C. § 651, et seq., which requires the promulgation of regulations promoting safe and healthy working environments.

At the state level, relief may be available under the:

  • the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act, M.C.L. 37.2101, et seq., which prohibits discrimination based on sex, color, race and national origin;
  • the Wage and Fringe Benefits Act, M.C.L. 408.471, et seq., which regulates payment of wages and fringe benefits, as well as prescribes the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees; and/or
  • the Minimum Wage Act, M.C.L. 408.381, et seq., which establishes a minimum wage and protects against wage discrimination.

Trafficking victims may also find justice through other federal and state civil rights laws, racketeering laws and criminal statues prohibiting acts frequently committed in conjunction with trafficking such as rape, assault, kidnapping and extortion.

How Can Attorneys Help?

Labor and employment attorneys are uniquely situated to assist in the fight against labor trafficking.  They can educate their clients on the issue, encourage the adoption of corporate anti-trafficking policies and practices, and help victims navigate the web of state and federal laws that may apply.  More specifically,

Report Suspected Labor Trafficking.  The National Human Trafficking Resource Center maintains a national hotline at 1-888-3737-888 to which incidents can be reported.

Offer Pro Bono Service.  Volunteer to assist victims and/or victim service and legal aid organizations that assist trafficking victims.

Educate Your Clients.  The U.S. State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report recommends “increase[d] cooperation between the private and public sectors to encourage business practices that rid supply chains of trafficking . . .”[xxii]   Moreover, as governmental and media scrutiny increases, employers will likely bear greater pressure to identify and rid their supply chains of human trafficking.  Given this developing environment, and the moral and ethical responsibilities of our employers and businesses, it is prudent for them to get out in front of this issue now and begin adopting policies and practices with an eye toward eliminating human trafficking from their labor and supply sources.  More specifically, employers and businesses can aid the fight against labor trafficking by, among other things:

  • establishing a corporate policy denouncing labor trafficking in all of its forms and clearly articulating the steps that the company is taking or will take to identify and eliminate labor and supply sources that result from trafficking;
  • promoting industry-wide codes of conduct encouraging fair labor practices, safe working environments and fair wages;
  • including clauses within contracts with suppliers and other partners prohibiting the use of forced labor or any labor resulting from human trafficking;
  • educating key personnel on the existence of forced labor and training them to recognize employment practices that may violate international, national and state trafficking or forced labor laws;
  • encouraging employers to know their suppliers and contractors and, when labor trafficking is suspected, to take appropriate action which can include reporting the offense, disengaging the supplier or leveraging the business relationship to improve working conditions;
  • establishing a monitoring or auditing system to ensure suppliers’ or partners’ conformity to anti-trafficking policies, or collaborating with a nonprofit group to provide such monitoring; and
  • establishing a channel through which workers can safely lodge complaints regarding working conditions.[xxiii]


If you are interested in learning more about labor trafficking, there is a wealth of information available online.  Below is a non-exhaustive list of resources that may assist you:

For technical assistance, victim identification training or to connect to agencies that may need your support, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-3737-888.

Nakisha N. Chaney is an employment and civil rights attorney in the State of Michigan. A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Ms. Chaney worked with several civil and human rights organizations including the ACLU Michigan, Amnesty International USA, and the University of Michigan Law School Human Trafficking Law Project. In addition, Ms. Chaney served as the Michigan Stop Violence Against Women Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International, as well as presented on various human rights issues facing women and girls, including domestic violence and human trafficking. Ms. Chaney is the wife of Sen. Minister Adisa Chaney and the mother of two beautiful children.


[i] Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, On the Occasion of the Interactive Dialogue on Human Trafficking:  Partnership and Innovation to End Violence Against Women & Girls, Statement Before the General Assembly of the United Nations (April 3, 2012), available at http://www.un.org/en/ga/president/66/statements/trafficking030412.shtml (last visited April 23, 2012).

[ii] International Trafficking, Polaris Project, available at http://www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/international-trafficking (last visited April 23, 2012)(Human trafficking’s global value includes both sex and labor trafficking.  Sex trafficking is not included within the scope of this article).

[iii]Symposium on Global Efforts to End Human Trafficking, Polaris Project, Nov. 1, 2011, available at http://www.polarisproject.org/media-center/press-releases/518-symposium-on-global-efforts-to-end-human-trafficking-learning-from-our-successes-and-challenges-nov-8-2011 (last visited April 23, 2012).

[iv] 22 U.S.C. § 7102(8)(B).

[v] See statutory definitions at 22 U.S.C. § 7102(4) and M.C.L. 750.462j(6)(c).

[vi] See statutory definitions at 22 U.S.C. § 7102(5); M.C.L. 750.462a(e).

[vii] Labor Trafficking Fact Sheet, Dep’t of Health & Human Services, available at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/trafficking/about/fact_labor.pdf (last visited April 23, 2012).

[viii] 2011 U.S. State Dep’t Trafficking in Persons Report 372, available at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/164458.pdf (last visited April 23, 2012).

[ix] 22 U.S.C. § 7101(b)(16)-(20).

[x] Heather J. Clawson, et al., Dep’t of Health & Human Services, Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States:  A Review of the Literature 5 (Aug. 2009), available at http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/07/HumanTrafficking/LitRev/index.shtml (last visited April 23, 2012).

[xi] Human Traffickers Indicted:  Massive Case Involves 600 Thai Victims, FBI, Jan. 28, 2011, available at http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2011/january/trafficking_012811 (last visited April 23, 2012).

[xii] It is difficult to assess the full scope of labor trafficking within Michigan (as with other places).  Victims are frequently well-guarded, coerced to provide false information about their circumstances, lack identification or proper immigration papers, and go unidentified by authorities (and sometimes themselves) as trafficking victims.

[xiii] National Human Trafficking Resource Center Call Data Breakdown:  Michigan State Annual Reports (2009-2011), available at http://www.polarisproject.org/state-map/michigan (last visited April 23, 2012).

[xiv] Although it appears the victim’s name is published in the related court opinions, an alias is used here.

[xv] United States v. Djoumessi, 538 F.3d 547 (6th Cir. 2008).

[xvi] See, e.g.,  University of Michigan Law School Human Trafficking Clinic, A Survey of Human Trafficking in Michigan 6 (June 2011), available at http://www.law.umich.edu/clinical/humantraffickingclinicalprogram/Documents/A%20Survey%20of%20Human%20Trafficking%20in%20Michigan.June%202011.pdf (last visited April 23, 2012)(describing Ohio as “a locus of human trafficking in the United States.”); Study Indicates Ohio is Hub of Sex and Labor Trafficking, Ms. Magazine, Feb. 11, 2010, available at http://www.msmagazine.com/news/uswirestory.asp?ID=12220 (last visited April 23, 2012).

[xvii] News Release, ICE most wanted fugitive arrested at JFK on human trafficking charges, Immigr. & Cust. Enforcement, Jan. 27, 2011, available at http://www.ice.gov/news/releases/1101/110127detroit.htm (last visited April 23, 2012).

[xviii] Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2003, 108 P.L. 193; TVPRA of 2005, 109 P.L. 164; TVPRA of 2008, 110 P.L. 457.

[xix] M.C.L. 750.462b.

[xx] M.C.L. 750.462i.

[xxi] AG Human Trafficking Cases, available at http://www.michigan.gov/ag/0,4534,7-164-60857_60862—,00.html (last visited April 23, 2012).

[xxii] 2001 Trafficking in Persons Report at 372.

[xxiii]For a more comprehensive list of actions businesses can take, see Roger Plant, Forced Labor:  Critical Issues for US Business Leaders, Presented at Engaging Business:  Addressing Forced Labor Conference (Feb. 20, 2008), available at http://www.ilo.org/empent/areas/business-helpdesk/tools-resources/WCMS_092176/lang–en/index.htm (last visited April 22, 2012); Consultative Group to Eliminate the Use of Child Labor and Forced Labor in Imported Agricultural Products Report 3 (Dec. 15, 2010), available at http://www.fas.usda.gov/info/Child_labor/CGDraftRPTRECS%20-%20final%2012%2015.pdf (last visited April 23, 2012).

About Kiese

Kiese Laymon is a fiction writer and essayist who writes frequently on pop culture, hip hop and politics. He is currently teaches English, Africana Studies and Creative Writing at Vassar College.
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One Response to Hidden in Plain Sight: Labor Trafficking in Michigan — by Attorney Nakisha N. Chaney

  1. Lawyer says:

    Such an superb write-up!

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