Labor trafficking service providers told consultants hired by King County that increasing numbers of trafficking survivors are ending up in the Northwest Detention Center.
Labor trafficking service providers told consultants hired by King County that increasing numbers of trafficking survivors are ending up in the Northwest Detention Center. ASK

Politicians, particularly local prosecutors, have long bolstered their careers by crusading against sex trafficking, a complex and heinous crime that's difficult to study and often conflated with consensual sex work. But when it comes to labor trafficking, not everybody on the King County Council is ready to take action.

In January, King County Council members commissioned a study on human trafficking. The first results of that study were published in July of 2017, and concluded that, while the county has made strides to address sex trafficking, very few resources exist for survivors of labor trafficking in other industries and the crime is rarely prosecuted.

Over the last decade, just three labor trafficking cases have been charged and prosecuted in the state, and all of them through the state Attorney General's Office. Some of the most common industries featured in trafficking reports have been domestic work (including elder and childcare), restaurants, nursing facilities, cleaning services, factories, construction, nail salons, drug smuggling, panhandling, nail salons, and more. The report also mentioned the agricultural industry, and noted that there are ongoing investigations of some nurseries in King County.

Non-profits dedicated to serving survivors of labor trafficking reported to King County that they've witnessed a doubling of reported labor trafficking survivors in the first quarter of 2017. That phenomenon could be explained by better screening mechanisms to report trafficking survivors who traveled over the southern US-Mexico border and who have ended up in the Northwest Detention Center, a privately run immigration detention center in Tacoma.*

The report recommended that lawmakers furnish more resources to study the problem, as well as provide immediate housing and civil legal assistance to trafficking survivors caught in the Trump administration's immigration crackdown.

King County's Health, Housing, and Human Services Committee voted to formally approve the report in a meeting on Tuesday, but County Council Member Kathy Lambert, who represents the county's more rural areas, issued a warning first.

"This is a really important topic," she said, "but I want to make clear some of the things they were talking about today are national problems not necessarily in this county, and the area that we would be talking about is the eastern part of this county, and I'm not aware that this problem exists on our farms."

"So I want to be a little bit careful that we don't make it sound like we are saying awful things about people who live in our counties," Lambert said.

But King County Council Member Larry Gossett, the Council's only black representative, pushed back on Lambert. "Remember when you thought that people in your district never had any problems with police officers?" Gossett asked.

"I didn't say never," Lambert said.

"You didn't say never? Okay," Gossett said.

"There may be areas in your district where they're super exploiting laborers, but I don't have any specific examples for you," Gossett said. He continued: "I don't see how we could say that in the biggest council district in our county that's rural, assume there's nothing going on and not investigate. I think we have to look at the farms, farmers, farm working situation out there too, to ascertain or document there's no problems. And there might be some problems."

County Council Member Jeanne Kohl-Welles insisted that it's important to investigate labor trafficking in King County, too.

"Trafficking continues to exist and thrive because a lot of it is hidden," she said. "And that's not to say any particular farm or construction company or nail salon, you know, in any of our districts is culpable, but this report we are voting on is about King County labor trafficking, not US labor trafficking, or Seattle labor trafficking, or Washington labor trafficking. It is specific to our county and as such I think it's important that we all look over the recommendations again and see what we might be able to take on."

Read the trafficking report here.

*This post originally and incorrectly reported that the increase could be attributed to more arrests rather than better screening mechanisms. We regret the error.